By Michael Joseph Gross
At 1 a.m. on a Sunday morning in late September, the crowd at the Abbey is almost a caricature of diversity: fat boys, femmy boys, and muscle boys, spanning a rainbow coalition of ethnicities; a pack of trannies dressed like Pussycat Dolls; more varieties of lesbian than The L Word has yet had the courage to depict (a flapper with spit curls in a white bustier lies horizontally in a candlelit white cabana in the back); and male-female couples holding hands.
Since SBE bought in, the Abbey has been changing incrementally, and the place feels much slicker than it did before. A new sous chef was poached from Wolfgang Puck, and a W Hotel menu consultant revamped the kitchen with fresher, healthier, and more consistently tasty entr�es than before. SBE�s chief operating officer, Arich Berghammer, who previously worked for the House of Blues, created �quality control� systems for the Abbey that he prefers to keep �invisible� because �the last thing we want is for it to feel like a chain restaurant, like California Pizza Kitchen, where the manager comes by every 21/2 hours and checks off that he stopped by your table. The Abbey is a lot more organic than that.� He adds, �Soulful is our mantra.�
Cooley revels in the Abbey�s newly ambiguous identity. �What gay society wants is to be welcome wherever we go,� he says. �Sometimes people come in and complain, �The Abbey is becoming so mixed.� I�m like, �That�s perfect. That�s what our goal is, right? Not going to a straight bar, gay bar, black bar, Latino bar -- but a place where everyone can feel welcome.�� Although he wants the next Abbey to be located in a gay neighborhood, he also wants it to radiate the West Hollywood Abbey�s au courant pansexual cool: �To go open up just a gay bar I don�t think would work in big cities.�
There is a difference between self-respecting assimilation and the self-punishing discipline of passing, though sometimes it�s difficult to distinguish between the two. David Cooley walks the fine line between them, and it�s too early to say for sure how his project will turn out. Yet, as it was in the beginning, the Abbey�s ongoing evolution expresses its founder�s own growth both in business and in life. �For me to grow and fulfill my dreams,� he says, �I can�t be at this one place 24/7.�
Cooley shows up for dinner at the Abbey at 8 p.m. one night, accompanied by Felix, an undergraduate from Frankfurt, Germany, now studying at a Christian college in Orange County on a tennis scholarship. �Felix is straight,� David says. Under the table, his hand is on Felix�s knee.
Felix affirms in a choppy German accent, �Yes, I am straight. I come to the Abbey with all of my straight friends. It is not just a gay bar.�
When Felix excuses himself for a cigarette, Cooley�s eyes follow the young man across the bar. There�s no way not to ask: Um, David? Felix is...straight?
Flashing a smile almost as bright as the German�s, Cooley says, �We have our fun.�