Down at The Abbey with Todd Barnes
West Hollywood, California, USA

No trip to West Hollywood would be complete without at least one trip to The Abbey. Situated just off Santa Monica Boulevard, this courtyard-style gay bar is at the heart of the city’s nightlife. With recent expansions and some exciting plans in the offing, it was the perfect opportunity to catch up with the man at its helm Todd Barnes.

How long have you been at The Abbey?

I came here in 2001 as a manager for four years and then came back in 2010 as General Manager.

What brought you to West Hollywood?

At the time I moved here, I was with my Belgian wife and then, like everyone who comes to LA, I wanted to be an actor. So we looked for a place around a nice neighbourhood. West Hollywood really fitted the bill. It was still affordable and centrally located. 

The Abbey is one of those legendary places that everyone knows of. How does that happen?

I think it’s because its growth was organic. It wasn’t like a conglomerate came in and said, okay, we want to open up a big gay bar. It started with David Cooley in 1991, with a little coffee shop right across the street and, really, he had no money – he basically opened up with some credit cards and an espresso machine. I remember seeing a picture from LA Pride – he had all the guys in there, their white sneakers and white knee-high socks and cut-off shorts, looking very 1990s/late 80s. It was so funny. ‘The Abbey’ sign was handwritten and you could see that iced tea was a dollar. You could just feel the vibe.

David became good friends with the guy who owned the property that The Abbey now stands on. His name was Ogden ‘Denny’ Edwards III and he had a pottery shop here. He would come across and have a coffee in David’s shop. At the time, he said, ‘well hey, I’ve got a lot of space, I can clear out an area for you’. So that is what he did and David moved the coffee shop from across the street to over here.   

So it was just tea and coffee to begin with?

Yes. Then David got a beer and wine licence. I remember the first time I came here – in 1998 with my wife. My wife! I’m married to a man now. 

…that’s what West Hollywood does to you…

I know, right! People were warning us about that. Be careful of those men. It’s true, it’s true.

Where was I? So, I came here and my wife and I bought a bottle of wine and sat on the patio. Then I didn’t come back again until after I’d come out to her. By then, The Abbey had already taken over. They’d got their liquor licence and started doing apple martinis. I would say that apple martinis are what really got The Abbey going. Then they came up with watermelon martinis. It was really known as a martini bar. Any martini you can think of, we had it. The Abbey became really successful and, when Denny allowed David to expand over into the other building, that was the third bar. That’s when I came in. Denny then decided it was time for him to retire. He said, ‘you can have the whole building, I’m moving to the desert’. So we built the fourth bar, which at the time was called the Ice Bar. I decided to do what they do for Super Bowl and football stadiums – allow companies to name them. We started calling it the Finlandia Ice Bar and, when I pitched the name to Finlandia, they went for it and it was very successful. Actually, Finlandia was a little-known vodka but, because we were selling so many martinis, it really put them on the map. When they were bought out, we switched to Absolut and became the number-one Absolut purchaser in the country.  

Did that change the business? Could you almost charge the brands to be featured with you?

No, we don’t do that. We have a partnership with each brand and we have events they take over. Some of the events we deal with ourselves, like our annual ‘Christmas in September’, when we raise tens of thousands’ worth of dollars of toys for the children’s hospital in LA. Over Pride, however, we have a partner.

Once we opened the Ice Bar, I think we were probably the number-one busiest bar in the country. Not just the busiest nightclub, but the busiest bar in the country. Sales were going through the roof. You see, there’s just nothing like The Abbey. The space is unique – the outdoor aspect, the bar, the hot guys, the hot girls and the friendly, accommodating staff.

There’s a real mix of people here…

It’s a very big mix. It was always voted the number-one gay bar to bring your straight friends to. We were the first restaurant to have a DJ and, even though we didn’t have a dance floor or lights or go-go boys, people wanted to dance. But we weren’t allowed to have dancing – we didn’t have a dance licence. So we would get fined by the city. They would come in and see people dancing and be, like, here is your fine. Finally, we got our dance licence. We built the dance floor and started hiring go-go boys. We were one of the first clubs that had them. When the women came in, they’d see the go-go boys and think, ‘oh my God, we’re in heaven’. Right now, I’d say there’s a higher straight percentage at the weekend, but it’s still probably about 50/50.

There are people over there with their mum…

Oh, yeah, it depends on the time of day. As we’ve evolved, we’ve tried different things. In the beginning, when we did lunch, there were no other restaurants around, so we had a line out the door for people coming in for a meal. With the redevelopment of the park next door, mothers with their kids now stop by for coffee or tea or a martini. Then you have Sundays, which were always a huge fun-day event. That became more of a tea-dance party, where gays, lesbians and straights came to have a good time. Seven years ago we started our drag show. At the time, we were trying to think about how to increase business on Saturday afternoons, when people tend to go to the ocean. We went to Miami and saw the Palace’s drag show on the beach. We thought it would be perfect to do a drag show out front, on the street where people would see it and go ‘wow’. We started about two years ago and it has really taken off. We bring in extra staff and the girls are amazing – they put on a great show. It is really a lot of fun. 

After that, we opened The Chapel. We wanted it to look a lot like The Abbey, but to appeal to a higher-end element. The Chapel has a different clientele – it’s more gay, probably about 80 percent. During the week, there’s more circuit dance music – a lot of the local crowd like that.

So you’re good at changing with the times?

We always have been. The great thing about David is that, if he sees something isn’t working, he changes it. And we get great feedback from our regulars. 

There’s a move towards extending the liquor licence to 4 am. Is that something you support?

Yes, definitely, though I understand there’s a for and against. I’m not a night person, but we have some great managers that could take care of it. Early evening is David’s favourite shift. He says, ‘Todd, have you got my station ready?’ I go, ‘yes, it’s all ready’. He loves getting involved, going up to tables and pouring the champagne, making sure everybody is okay; he’s very good at it. Customers love it, too. 

Across the world, gay bars are closing and gay areas are becoming less gay. How do you buck the trend? 

If you’re just a gay bar in an area that’s just a gay area, you’ve probably had it. But it’s not just The Abbey that’s becoming more straight, it’s all of West Hollywood. All the gay bars have more women in them. Bachelorette parties are huge. They come to see the go-go boys, then bring their friends. 

What makes Boystown so special?

I think it’s because it’s been a gayborhood for so long. Boystown is where the boys come to hang out and have fun. I think we have maybe eight or nine bars in just this five-block area and it is such a destination. West Hollywood also has the Sunset Strip, which is more straight and has kept its identity – as has Boystown. A lot of people come here and feel safe.

By ‘here’, do you mean West Hollywood in general?

Yes, West Hollywood in general. The Abbey is the big anchor for the city, but when people come to West Hollywood, they go to all the other places too. When they get in the Lyft, they say ‘let’s go to The Abbey’. It’s synonymous with Boystown. So many Lyft drivers know how to get here, the city actually recognised us recently. We are the first pick-up and drop-off location they’ve designated in the city. 

Have you always kept within this area?

Yes, I used to live right around the corner, on Palm Avenue. Thanks to my job, I’ve been able to buy my vacation home in Palm Springs, where I will eventually retire. It’s the up-and-coming place for gay men to retire. It’s definitely worth checking out. 

So will there be an Abbey in Palm Springs?

If I have any say in it, there will be. I’ve scouted a couple of locations and David is warming to the idea. 

Will you roll out the brand elsewhere?

That was the plan. They were going to open up Abbeys across the country, but it didn’t pan out. David has just partnered in Bottega Louie, the big restaurant that’s going to open around the corner. The first one’s in Downtown LA – it makes $20m a year. So it’s going to be an amazing addition to the area.

Is that typical of how things happen in WeHo?

There’s a lot going on. There’s another bar down on the corner, new beaches and Lisa Vanderpump is opening up nearby. The factory across the street is going to be redeveloped into the Robertson Lane project, a 280-room hotel with shops and nightclubs. It’s going to be huge. Everything is changing. 

Changing in a good or a bad way?

In a good way. West Hollywood is already a huge destination, but it is going to be even more so. The next thing is the factory. Who knows, we might take over the hotel there. That would be great.  

So, you start with a coffee shop, turn into a restaurant, then a bar, then a club…

A hotel’s a long way off. We’ll see what happens. I feel positive. West Hollywood is already a nightlife destination but, with all the other things that are happening, it can be a daytime destination too. Once the park is finished, it’s going to be amazing. The good thing is that David owns The Abbey, so it is his to do with as he wants. There have been people who’ve come along and wanted to buy it, but no way is he ever going to want to sell.

696 N Robertson Boulevard, West Hollywood, CA 90069  

Photography by Ryan Forbes/Avablu, Martin Perry and courtesy of The Abbey