Allan Mawn - restaurateur: An obituary by Roy Beers

Allan's Sketches of Spain

Photo: allan mawn. Who was Allan Mawn? Outwith the tight circle of his very nearest and dearest, probably the person best qualified to "know" the real man is his long-standing friend and erstwhile colleague Frank Murphy, who in the course of a fairly brief conversation with me about Allan hints at a career even broader than the one so capably described in The Herald's excellent and apposite half page obituary. I was lucky enough to be one of a very large number of people who were able to glean some inkling of Allan's vast licensed trade-related talents, in my case through trade journalism.

But while I tend to think of his achievements in terms of Barcelona restaurant; of his work with Strathclyde University bars, and of course of Pintxo, Velvet Elvis and Criterion, Frank inevitably has the much richer, broader picture.

There is a huge and fascinating story waiting to be written about the buccaneering days of the 70's, when Frank and Allan were both heavily involved on the frontiers of the music business - using every trick in the book (even printing their own tickets and posters) to win a slice of entertainment action from a city crying out for change and new experiences.

Frank underscores what I sort of already knew by commenting that at some point Allan made what in retrospect seems like a natural transition from the music and music bars scene to the licensed trade - without, however, leaving the music side of things behind.

Both seams of endeavour are closely intertwined, on many levels, and it is arguably through years of hard-won (albeit largely fun) experience in the music business that Allan was able to develop his apparently uncanny ability to provide what people, as in bar or restaurant customers, actually want.

There are, inevitably, hilarious anecdotes to be told. For example about the Glaswegian who assumed an imitation cannon being used as a prop in a music act would make a convenient seat in a "stowed" venue one particular night. When the gun went off, Frank relates, the chap was catapulted unceremoniously to the floor - but, this being Glasgow, demanded no recompense beyond a pint of cider and blackcurrant.

Allan became the quintessential Westender - not the rarified, toffee-nosed, epicurean snob of popular "G12" mythology but a switched-on entrepreneur whose life seemed to say that just because you're "a bit bohemian" doesn't mean you're not committed, or organised.

The licensed trade is an unforgiving and punishing taskmaster, and impossible hours coupled with relentless work are the typical lot of anyone seeking to cut a true entrepreneurial dash. Allan was a mature middle-aged man when he plunged into one of his most daring projects, Pinxto tapas restaurant; a Basque-influenced venture in the wholly unlikely milieu of Thornwood. He ate, breathed and slept Pinxto round the clock, month after month, until he had "won" that particular campaign - a decisive victory.

Enthusiastic reviews followed from every point of the compass, and in what seemed no time at all Velvet Elvis, contrast and counterpoint, appeared next door. It would take thousands of words to do adequate justice to the hundreds of details, large and small, which together make these venues different and exciting.

Allan once joked that now he had added Criterion to these two he would be allowed to open a hotel beside them, as in Monopoly - but he wasn't joking when he told me, less than six months ago, that what he'd really like to do next was open a "real West End pub" in Byres Road, if only he could find the right site. It would have been, partially, a reinterpretation of the old Rubaiyat of no doubt rose-tinted memory.

Meanwhile Frank Murphy again confirms what I thought I knew already about his work ethos when he points out that Allan "didn't like to see people arsing about" - meaning that if you were working in a place there was definitely something useful you could be doing; not just for the sake of doing something but to aid the whole process of making a place into a success.

He went out of his way to acquire what he considered good staff, was obviously proud of their achievements, and worked like the proverbial Trojan to keep his venues alive, sparky, alert and customer-friendly.

On the customer side he was famous for being one of those "old fashioned" owners who actually spend time with their customers, and who genuinely enjoy meeting people and finding out what they've got to say about the food, the wine, or just the world in general.

He was the sort of bloke you would find rummaging in shops, or closely examining fruit in a market stall - and, should you ask, he could probably give you a concise account of on-trade draught cider distribution in the Asturias, without batting an eyelid. He was a man whose sleeves were, figuratively, always rolled up.

Allan's vast circle of real friends included, to borrow a tired but accurate cliche, a Who's Who of the licensed trade and the quality broadsheet end of the journalism profession. However you did not have to be excellent at anything in particular or remotely influential to be quids in with Allan.

He was, to so many people, first and foremost a nice guy - one with a pithy remark to suit any situation; and with an encyclopaedic knowledge of matters deep and philosophical, along with the gift of expressing complex concepts in a few apparently simple phrases.

There was an eternal boyish enthusiasm about his persona, and a spontaneous generosity, that shone through in everything he did. Whereas some entrepreneurs would settle for steely efficiency and a ruthlessly-organised business plan he somehow managed to achieve all of that while factoring in huge doses of "fun" - as, for example, in sourcing a hundred and one different kinds of memorabilia from often obscure and extremely left-field sources.

My big regret is that I didn't know him in the far-off 70's, when he was a regular habitue at classic Kelvinbridge pub The Doublet; or when he was hatching new and usually very different ways of bringing something new to town.

Again we've Frank to thank for pointing out that Allan Mawn was more than just a West End phenomenon, as his career also involved a spell running the students unions in Northumbria - which he appears to have improved beyond recognition. And no doubt Frank also knows, more than most, how Allan somehow managed to combine within one hectic person such military-style organisation with zany creative flair; he was a deeply professional operator who was also an affable and amiable human being - one with a zesty and acerbic, but always kind, sense of humour.

His loss at such a young age (even with such an action-packed life to his credit) is a bitter blow. Everyone, of course, will remember him and celebrate his memory in his or her own way.

I once mentioned to him in passing that the pzazz of Pintxo, with its cool music background of classy jazz, reminded me of the Miles Davis masterpiece Sketches of Spain - based on the famous Concierto De Aranjuez by Rodrigo: it's one of the few jazz interpretations of a formal symphony which in some ways is not only different but even better than the original, and is (I thought) a neat metaphor for modern, forward-looking Spain.

Next time I was in Pintxo, months later, "Sketches of Spain" suddenly came on the recording system, very loud, half way through my meal - and there was Allan (also a Miles Davis fan) smiling impishly from the kitchen door.

Now every time I hear the first few haunting bars of that masterpiece I will automatically think of Allan, and everything he represented, and everything he achieved - and of what we have lost.

Roy Beers, 1st February, 2011