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.'