There’s Always Room at The Abbey in L.A.
Daniel Cooley wanted out of the corporate rat race. It was the late 1980s and he was tapped out of his job as a banker at Wells Fargo. And when he saw the successes of a close friend and their coffee house, The Living Room in La Brea, he decided he had found the perfect business plan. Almost three decades later, he’s taken that initial 1,100 square foot coffee shop and expanded it into a 17,000 foot complex that spans a nightclub, restaurant, bar, and bakery, that operates as not only a nationally-known Los Angles staple visited by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson, and presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg, but a town hall of sorts, and gathering locale for the LGBTQ+ community and its allies.
“I didn’t expect that, but I’m very proud of it,” Cooley tells us of The Abbey, which he founded in 1991. “The very first moment I realized it was something more was in 1992. We started a march at the coffee shop with ACT UP. We were marching because at that time, so much of our community was losing their life because the Reagan Administration was not acknowledging [the AIDS epidemic]. That was my first political move using the brand to support our community.” And though the brand has continued that legacy — notably banning bachelorette parties from the time Prop 8 passed in 2008 until marriage equality was signed into law in 2015 — the venue has also become a second home on holidays, for those who sometimes may not have another option. On Thanksgiving day this year, it will turn into that again as The Abbey opens its gates for a full, traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
For the past 20 years, the complex, which boasts stained glass windows, patios, and a lot of open-air seating, which Cooley says is key to his business plan, has been open on the holiday. For it, The Abbey hosts a complete meal, with all the trimmings, for those in town: everything from the turkey and the stuffing, to the pumpkin pie. It’s all there.
“We would get phone calls asking if we were open,” Cooley said of how the event, which has become a tradition, started. “So we just tried it. You know, it’s a family day, but I think within our community, it’s so important that we can celebrate our selected family and our friends.” The event is packed with travelers who don’t have anywhere else to go, locals who aren’t communing with their own biological families, as well as some locals who either bring their families or come after personal get-togethers. Its success led Cooley and his staff to open the gates on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — these holidays have become some of The Abbey’s busiest days.
“[Every year,] we have customers saying, ‘Thank you for being open today. It’s a place for us that we can come to,’” Cooley says. Those comments, reaffirm the owner’s commitment to the event.
But with the growth and mainstreaming of The Abbey — in 2017, the club was the subject of a reality series on E!, and in 2016 the bar, which originated the “appletini,” was reportedly Bacardi’s largest account — that community has changed and shifted. In 2007, a majority stake of the business was sold to the hospitality and entertainment company SBE. After nine years, which were riddled with complaints about how the new owners prized bottle service, and the velvet-rope-like treatment, which was out of sync with what the space had become known for, Cooley brought the company back in-full in 2016.
With its rise in popularity, the Abbey has also become somewhat of a tourist destination attracting cisgender, straight visitors. At times, that patronage can make it feel as though it’s not specifically for local queer and trans folk. As the crowds swelled, there have also been reported allegations of transphobia towards staff as well as patrons, which the Abbey has gone on the record and apologized for.
Cooley is resolute that everybody and anybody is welcome: “When I opened up 29 years ago, my policy was everyone’s always welcome, I don’t care,” Cooley says about the possible change in demographic. “At the time, there were so many different bars that catered to ceratin clientele: if you were into leathermen you would go to this bar, if you were into cute boys you’d go to this bar, if you were lesbian you’d go to this bar.” The Chapel, Cooley’s adjoining nightclub that opened in 2016, hosts Altar Girl, a longrunning lesbian night. The Abbey proper has also long boasted guys, girls, and gender-nonconforming performers as gogo dancers.
“I don’t want to say I have a gay bar, even though The Abbey is one of the biggest gay bars in the world or whatever the title is, but it’s just I want everyone to feel welcome,” Cooley says. “I think that’s worked out well for me.”