"'I know your face,' he said. 'How do I know your face?' He kept looking at me. 'Ah . . . you're Craig Brown.'"
Being out of work is a stressful business and Levein, 48, has been out of the public eye for a wee while, but he hasn't let himself go to the extent he could be mistaken for a 73-year-old. If anything he is more of an advertisement for the restorative effects of a life of leisure for those fortunate enough to be able to afford it. The former Scotland manager looks tanned and relaxed, and is in good humour. Catching up with him involved finding time in his diary yesterday because Wednesday - and today - had been set aside for golf.
When he walks in to a favoured Fife cafe, he seems to be in one of those white polo shirts the Scotland management usually wear when on squad duty. Surely things aren't so bad that he's clinging to his SFA wardrobe all these months later? He laughs. In fact it's a similar style, but definitely not a relic from his Hampden days.
There was a raw spell when Levein was consumed by what happened when he went through the mincer as Scotland manager - he was sacked on November 5 last year - but he's in a better place now. He's been on holiday, he's spent far more time with his wife, Carol, he's socialised, been to a few games, gone on long walks with the dog, golfed and rebuilt himself in readiness for a return to management. He's done some radio and television work and declined offers to do much more, in case he comes to be perceived as a pundit rather than a manager. "I know people say doing broadcasting work reminds people I'm out there but I don't think anyone's ever got a job just because they're often on the radio. I hope my record speaks for itself in management without that."
Levein's record is familiar enough to any club in Scotland: success at Cowdenbeath and Hearts, a disappointing and brief spell at Leicester City, then resurrection via work with Dundee United which was so impressive it propelled him into the Scotland job late in 2009. His tenure in charge of the country became anchored by negativity: a mutually damaging stand-off with Steven Fletcher, poor Euro 2012 qualifying results, a firestorm of criticism for playing 4-6-0 in Prague, a failing start to the 2016 World Cup qualifiers, dismissal, and an ugly dispute with the SFA over a pay-off.
"It got manic towards the end; a bit silly," he says. "I was unhappy with the decision at first, of course, but once I was out of it in some ways I was happy to get a break. It's funny how time slips by. I've gone through different phases. There was anger at first, anger at everybody, and then I got the stuff with the SFA sorted out and that helped because it was in the back of my mind that it might hinder me. Stewart [Regan, the SFA chief executive] said early on it was 'business'. I didn't feel it was business. But after a period of time I can look at it and I see there was a process between the two parties to get to an end result, which to be fair I was happy with. I could have been a lot more obstinate but I wanted to move on. My head's cleared of all the SFA stuff and I'm ready to get back in. My missus will be delighted to have me out from under her feet. And my golf's not improving no matter how many times I'm out."
The healing process follows an inevitable path. There is no such certainty, though, over when or if an unemployed manager, even one whose last job was as high profile as his, will pick up the phone to hear a suitable offer. Seven top-flight clubs in Scotland have changed manager since he came on the market. He turned down a post in China and there was interest in the Singapore national job. He thought he had the Doncaster Rovers position only for it to go elsewhere. The competition constantly intensifies. "Every year 20 people come out with Uefa licences and I don't think there's 20 managers who die every year! So the competition is intense. I accept that, it's the business I'm in."
His situation is unusual. Managers who leave a job as big as Scotland normally have a natural place to go. Berti Vogts reappeared on the international carousel, Walter Smith and Alex McLeish resigned for club jobs, even George Burley had enough of a name in England to get work. It was never so easy to see where Levein would return. Did he fear that his 15 month spell at Leicester, which ended in 2006, might close off a whole swathe of English clubs? "There could be an element of that, yeah," he says. "Some people make it as simplistic as that. I have made mistakes in the past and one of them was being naive, like at Leicester I believed I would get the time I was told I would get. It told them it would take me three years. Looking back, I think there is an element of being tainted by having tried it.
"I write a lot of things down when things happen then read it all back a long time later. I wrote stuff down after I got the sack. I just make notes. I did it after Leicester as well and it was very beneficial. Things that I feel, things that happened. I look at it now and realise that I let myself get wound-up about situations. It comes back to the same thing: having a huge sense of frustration.
"It's only when you come out of it that you realise the job didn't suit me. I can't change it, that's what that job will be like until the day when every Scotland player says to his club manager 'I don't care what you say, I'm going to the national team'. And that's a long way away. It would need something like qualifying for a tournament to have every player clamouring to play. You look at Kris Commons saying he doesn't want to play. Come on! I just think that's wrong. I could tell you some stories you wouldn't believe, about guys - one or two, the same people - only playing when they wanted to play. At a club situation I could deal with that, I could move them on. But you can't make it public because as soon as you do you've got a fight with the guy's club manager."
There are things he can look back on with pride. Robert Snodgrass, James McArthur, James Forrest, Russell Martin and Grant Hanley made their debuts under him. He immersed himself in long-term SFA strategy and was influential in the introduction of the performance school structure and the creation of the national performance director role, filled by Mark Wotte. In time, these may yield real benefits.
That work was precious to him but he realises, now, that there was no need to take such an intense approach. "I remember meeting Egil Olsen, the Norwegian manager, a couple of years ago in a hotel in Poland. What's he now? In his seventies? So we had a beer and a blether. I said 'your players are all over the place, how do you find all the travelling'. He said, 'I don't travel, I just watch the games on TV, I'm writing a book about the geography of Norway . . .'"
Criticism was fierce when he was dismissed, but that petered out. "I've had no hassle from anybody since losing the job. Nobody has said anything unkind: not to my face anyway . . ." He was tempted to go to Wembley as a fan but thought better of it. "I got tickets for my brother and my mates went. But I didn't want to put myself in a position, going down, going into a pub or whatever. I just felt it would have been a bit unprofessional. I would love to have gone down and been anonymous and enjoyed it. I was up out of my chair when Kenny [Miller] scored. What will never change is how I felt about the players. I like the guys. I felt it personal at the time, but the more time passes the less personal it feels."
Animosity has dissolved. He has not been to a Scotland game since being dismissed but that is about to change. The SFA has invited him to the Belgium game on September 6 and he has accepted. From Scotland fan to manager, and back again.