When discussing West Hollywood nightlife, the conversation either starts or ends with the Abbey. The iconic club, restaurant, and bar turned 30 over the weekend, with festivities that spilled out onto Robertson, just south of Santa Monica Boulevard, complete with cocktails and a lesser-known menu item that started the entire influential enterprise: dessert.
There’s a massive bakery tucked inside of the Abbey, with a tempting display of red velvet cakes, cheesecakes, apple pies, and ding dongs ready for club hoppers, brunchers, cocktail lovers, or perpetual happy hour seekers. But the massive 12,500-square-foot Abbey experience — featuring, in its modern iteration, four full-service bars, DJ booths, dining areas, and go-go dancer podiums — had modest beginnings. Owner David Cooley opened the original Abbey in 1991, in the now empty and former Bossa Nova space. Cooley, even then, envisioned a queer-positive space with desserts.
“I borrowed money, used my credit cards. I asked a friend if he wanted to invest. He asked how I was going to make money selling coffee and a couple of cakes on Robertson,” Cooley says. “He said I needed to be on Santa Monica [Boulevard]. When people say you can’t do it, that’s even more of a challenge. [And] from day one, I had a line out the door.”
After spending three years at the former Bossa Nova location, Cooley moved directly across the street and into a 1,500-square-foot space that used to be a pottery shop. His landlord was supportive and allowed Cooley to expand. He continued to move outward, acquiring Here Lounge and revamping the Abbey into the Los Angeles cultural idol it is now. Cooley expanded the property five times with distinct vibes in each corner, from the striking Chapel room, to the loungey escape from the dance floor called Within, or garden dining they lovingly refer to as Abbey Road.
Throughout the changes — which included selling and buying back his business from SBE in 2007 — the Abbey’s dessert production remains consistent. And some of its 275-person staff have been working there for decades. Turnover is low, including longtime pastry chef Alan Zumel, whose creations are some of the restaurant’s best-sellers — alongside the impossibly strong martinis.
Zumel joined the Abbey 10 years ago and churns out the aforementioned desserts along with apple tarts, berry crisps, unicorn bars with Fruity Pebbles, butterscotch pudding, and tiramisu. “I make a mean bread pudding,” says Zumel. All desserts are available from 11 a.m. until 2 a.m., so if anyone desires a slice of Zumel’s seasonal key lime pie while on the dance floor, it is entirely a possibility. “Retro seems to resonate with people like apple pies, key lime pie, or anything to do with childhood memories,” he says.
Cooley leaves the creativity up to Zumel throughout the year, apparent in the Halloween cookies that border on murder scenes with ample red food coloring and sweet, twisted human body parts formed from pastry dough. Zumel’s key lime, meanwhile, is piled high with two inches of meringue and a thick graham cracker crust. His work might even include wedding cakes or preparing sweets for causes and fundraisers championed by Cooley, including the Abbey’s Christmas in September drive where the space is decked out in fake snow and decorations for the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
Cooley opened and closed four times since March 2020, a challenging feat since most bars and clubs were unable to open during COVID-19. He hopes to be around for another 30 years. This section of West Hollywood transformed considerably over the years. Bossa Nova, the longstanding Brazilian standby, is gone, as is Hamburger Haven which closed in late 2019. The Abbey is now sandwiched between reality star Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurants PUMP and Sur, while Lance Bass is planning to open America’s biggest gay bar inside of Rage, which closed in 2020 over a landlord dispute. Many of LA’s queer spaces have disappeared since March 2020. Cooley wants to bring barstools back as soon as possible, as his elder regulars prefer to sit at the bar for a meal and drinks. He says that many of these customers have suffered from isolation while sheltering in place. LA county banned barstools until coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
If sitting in the Abbey’s front patio, a glance across the street is to see West Hollywood’s future. When construction begins for Robertson Lane, a future 241 room hotel and retail space featuring four restaurants and a nightclub, the entire block will experience a dramatic — and permanent — change. At present, that development is delayed, so the buildings and lots adjacent to the Abbey are either boarded up or bulldozed over. Directly south of the Abbey is the construction site for West Hollywood Park, which opens in the fall. Until then, there’s always pie at the Abbey.