Twenty-five years ago, Ohio native, David Cooley, decided to take a break from his career in banking and follow his passion so that he could live life openly at gay man. Little did he know his investment in a small, discreet coffeehouse in West Hollywood would become a global sensation.
Tagg chats to the owner of The Abbey about the past twenty-five years – and five expansions – earning the legendary venue its title of the Best Gay Bar in the World twice over.
When you started The Abbey 25 years ago, did you imagine it would grow to the extent?
Everybody thought I was crazy to open a coffee shop on Robertson Boulevard. This was before there was a Starbucks on every corner and Robertson Boulevard was a sleepy, out-of-the-way street. The neighborhood grew up around us and we grew over 25 years. The reason The Abbey has been so incredible is because the community has supported us each step of the way as we grew. That’s why I like to support them as well.
A lot has changed since then, what are the new additions people can look forward to in light of 25 Years?
We just opened The Chapel at The Abbey. The Chapel at The Abbey is a completely separate venue from The Abbey, but it was designed so that the two venues would seamlessly flow together with a cohesive aesthetic. The Chapel also serves over one-hundred craft cocktails similar to those at The Abbey and a rotating selection of five California craft beers on draft.
What is your personal favorite thing on the Abbey menu?
Our most popular cocktail is the Wild Berry Martini. I’m partial to the Elizabeth Taylor Martini, which helps to continue her legacy with a portion of proceeds supporting the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
How has The Abbey’s culture evolved as attitudes toward the LGBTQ community has changed over time?
The Abbey has always been a place where everyone is welcomed. When we moved to our current location, I had an opportunity to do something different. We had an outdoor patio that was open to the street and adjacent to a park. People could see us as they went by, day or night. That was a radical idea for a gay bar at that time.
I tried to make The Abbey feel nice and upscale, so it was a place where you could bring your non-LGBTQ allies and they would feel comfortable. My guests were bringing their parents and their straight friends. I just focused on making sure everybody had a good time and everyone felt like an equal.
I also wanted to support our community. I remember hosting our first event with ACT UP and later hosting events with GLAAD, APLA, HRC, Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing and more. We tried to make sure when we hosted special events that we did it right and made them memorable. We tried to bring production value to all of our events, whether it was Gay Pride, a fundraiser or even a Super Bowl viewing party. Celebrities started to come. Elizabeth Taylor came on many occasions. I would be halfway around the world and mention to someone that I lived in Los Angeles and they would ask, “Have you been to The Abbey?” I couldn’t believe people knew who we were.
The Abbey was prominently featured in The “L” Word, which even resulted in a spinoff reality show featuring Abbey staff, did you find that more queer women started frequently it as a result?
We have always had a strong lesbian and queer woman audience. Our Wednesday night is dedicated to lesbians and queer women at The Chapel. We are the longest running lesbian night in Los Angeles and I think the only lesbian night in West Hollywood right now. The Abbey does indeed have a reality show coming on E! but it was not a spin-off of The “L” Word. It was a show I put together with E! directly because I finally thought it was time to tell the story of the people who work at The Abbey and pursue their dreams.
How do you as the founder ensure that a space like this remains inclusive?
Our door policy has not changed in 25 years. Everyone who is supportive of the LGBTQ community is welcomed. We’ve banned a few homophobic legislators and insensitive bachelorette parties over the years, but all who are supportive of the community will always be welcomed.
Where to from here?
People like to ask me what The Abbey means to the community. It means different things to different people. It is an establishment where you spend an afternoon with your friends, meet the love of your life, get over your ex, bring your parents, plot a political movement, meet your favorite celebrity, have a great cocktail, support a cause you believe in, dance the night away, go to your first gay bar or do all of those things in one day. To me, The Abbey is my home. It’s where I always want to be. If you want to find out what The Abbey means to you, I will be here, working to make sure you have a great time.