Little did Mike Munsey know, back in 1980, when a friend presented him with a small piece of western art for his Billings Restaurant, The Rex, that he would become an art patron. But something about that painting by Missoula artist Larry Pirnie resonated with him. Two years later, when he decided to remodel his Missoula Restaurant, The Depot, into a classic western steakhouse, Munsey wanted to decorate with western art, and his mind turned to that painting. Its artist lived in Missoula and his work focused on the old west, which made Pirnie a perfect fit for the remodeled dining room. Munsey commissioned Pirnie for six paintings, and the two worked together on the project, with the artist fashioning each piece for a particular spot on the dining room walls.
Pirnie’s colorful style lighted up the room, and the customers loved the decor so much that two years later, Munsey commissioned Pirnie once again, this time for the bar. Again, Pirnie took the location of each work into consideration, painting a large horizontal piece of cowboys lined up at the bar for the entryway and a lively image of a cowpoke roping wild horses in front of orangy pink cliffs behind the bar.
In the early 1990s, Pirnie produced still another collection for the upstairs banquet room, and finally, a new collection when the main dining room was remodeled in 2005. These latter works are painted in oil on canvas, giving them a somewhat softer look than the earlier works, which are all done in acrylic paint on paper. The original Pirnies from the dining room have been carefully redistributed throughout the restaurant, with Pirnie choosing appropriate locations to match the moods to their new locales--a lively piece depicting a stage coach pulled by galloping horses enlivens the busy upstairs waiting area, where people are constantly coming and going. At the far end of that dining room, Pirnie placed a painting with prominent red tones that echo the waiting area piece and beckon patrons to enter. At the end of the evening, guests view a peaceful image above the stairs as they depart after a satisfying meal. Pirnie’s careful placement of his works also means that as people drive by along Railroad Street at night, they can see a painting of a loving couple in front of a train from each of the three windows of the room.
The Depot now contains the largest collection of Larry Pirnie’s western art in existence, twenty-seven pieces in all. When people come to a town like Missoula, they want to be able to feel the old West Pirnie depicts, Munsey believes, and the popularity of his restaurant bears that out. The menu focuses on high quality steaks and fresh seafood, simply prepared, with every dish, including the salad dressings, made from scratch. Munsey emphasizes quality, and locals and visitors alike show their appreciation of his efforts by returning again and again. Some reserve particular tables so they can view a favorite Pirnie as they dine. Many choose to face a romantic image of a couple enjoying the sunset, which decorates the north wall of the dining room. On the other side they can view a triptych of bucking broncos. Who could ask for more--a delicious meal and an satisfying art experience, all at the same time?
~ Dorothy Patent writes magazine articles and nonfiction books for children from Missoula. Her latest, “The Buffalo and the Indians: A Shared Destiny,” has been chosen as Montana’s book for the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. this September.