“Long in the tooth” is a phrase that sounds as if it should have something to do with food, but doesn’t – like a flavor that fades out in a slow coda, lingering on your tongue and maybe wearing out its welcome by a few seconds. Instead, the term is just a colorful way of saying “old.” It’s how a friend of mine described Local 188 when I told her I was going for dinner one night recently, adding that the restaurant had been part of the Portland dining scene “for centuries.” Well, since 1999 at least, when Executive Chef Jay Villani opened the Spanish-influenced restaurant as the first of his trio of restaurants that now includes Sonny’s and Salvage BBQ.

After 17 years, Local 188 has also been written about more than a few times. Three and a half years ago, the Press Herald published a four-star review that praised the “impossibly intense” smoked chicken and the savory pumpkin bread pudding, calling the meal “among the most interesting and satisfying in town.”

But even in the short span of a few years, Portland’s food scene has snowballed into something larger, more complex, and certainly much more competitive than it was. Which makes it all the more amazing that a teenage restaurant like Local 188, with its shabby chic décor, mix-and-match light fixtures and tin ceilings, still sees lines of patrons waiting to eat brunch on weekends, and still manages, according to Villani, to seat more than 160 people on a typical Friday or Saturday night.

Some of that popularity comes down to booze: Local 188 might be a restaurant, but its beverage program feels more like it comes from a bar. Typically, you’ll find an entire dozen draft beers, along with a carefully considered, mostly Old World wine list and some gorgeous cocktails, like the bittersweet The Fever ($11), which, with homemade blood orange-infused gin, made an excellent aperitif.

Another reason for Local 188’s longevity is Villani’s management style. He still shows up at the restaurant every morning. For weekend brunch service, he also cooks alongside his young staff, whom he views as one of the restaurant’s biggest assets. Referring to himself as their spiritual guru and advisor, he uses his team’s zeal to keep the restaurant (and especially its menu) fresh. “These days, it’s about the kids in the kitchen. I want them to take their ideas and make what they enjoy eating and not to think if it’s going to be a hit or a miss. I tell them, ‘You make something new you believe in, that you really love, and I’ll be right behind you,’ ” Villani said.

One place where this approach has paid dividends is on the dessert menu, where you’ll find a strawberry shortcake with a chèvre and parsnip panna cotta ($8), or pastry chef Pat Tubbs’ literally named take on a Black Forest cherry dessert, the Bosque Negro ($8), a dense triple chocolate brownie dripping with slow-melting charred vanilla ice cream and dotted with deep red pickled cherries. Tubbs ties sweet and savory elements together with a Spanish-accented sherry pastry cream, soft raisin fruit jellies that echo aromas in the sherry, and a sprinkling of fried pine nuts that have been tossed in paprika. There’s a lot going on here, but apart from needing a little more vanilla char flavor in the ice cream, it all comes together in this remarkably inventive dessert – even the plating, which is aptly Picasso-esque.

It’s no surprise that presentation matters at Local 188 when you understand that it was originally a gallery, with tapas and wine offered as a way of attracting potential art buyers. Today, you’ll find murals and paintings on the walls, but also clear attention to the visual in dishes like the super-tangy, clean and simple white anchovies ($5), made in-house, but served in an open anchovy tin – a sly reference to both Magritte and Warhol, one that subverts expectations of what’s inside. Villani got the idea for the presentation on a tapas-eating trip to Barcelona he took with some of his Local 188 chefs, where they ate “really fantastic canned products served at the table in their tins,” he said.

Anchovies also showed up in a brown butter vinaigrette that topped the charred asparagus salad ($8) with shaved manchego and saffron croutons, a dish that, our server accurately remarked, “tastes like a backyard barbecue.” It also paired wonderfully with a slice of the very straightforward, if slightly underseasoned, traditional Spanish tortilla ($8) a thick omelet of sorts, made with layers of potato, bell pepper, cheese and scallion, and plated with a thick smear of a perky garlic aioli.

Another old standard, the classic paella ($28) needed a little tweaking. While we adored the fresh chourico (a Portuguese version of chorizo that is chunkier and a little more fatty) made for the restaurant at Salvage BBQ, as well as the intense tomato flavor, we couldn’t get past the rice. Good paellas soak up saffron-rich broth in thirsty, sponge-like quantities because they start with short-grained and starchy Bomba rice (or, in a pinch, Arborio). When all the broth is gone, the supersaturated grains at the bottom of the pan form a savory, crunchy bottom crust called “socarrat” that is as important to the dish as the clams and saffron – mostly because it is addictively tasty. Instead, our paella was made with a medium-long grain canilla rice that remained a little wet and consequently never developed the crispy socarrat, even after we had devoured the excellent seafood, chicken and grill-marked sausage. Switch up the rice, and I’d wager that this becomes one of the best paellas in the region.

By some distance, the star of our meal was the North Spore oyster mushrooms in a smoked brisket vinaigrette ($9). The sleight of hand worked by combining an ultra-concentrated beef sauce with grill-seared mushrooms gave this dish the illusion of meatiness, as if every salty, smoky bite were orders of magnitude richer than it actually was. The plate also illustrated yet another reason why Local 188 is still in business: its blend of creativity and frugality. That sauce I couldn’t get enough of? It’s made with jus left over from the weekend’s brunch brisket hash. “Everyone squawks about buying local, but when you do it (like in those mushrooms) there’s a compression and you have to make up costs somewhere. It’s a fine line making money on a restaurant these days, so we try to use every single thing. But only if it actually tastes good,” Villani said.

That he can make thriftiness this appealing says something important about Villani’s success running restaurants. It’s not enough just to be an inspirational boss or a creative cook with lots of ideas, or even to present artistic, visually compelling plates to diners. Those things help, certainly, but what really matters is that you’re thinking about all of a restaurant’s complicated moving parts and can keep them working together smoothly, even if the machinery is 17 years old. May we all be half this good when we are getting a little long in the tooth ourselves.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant.

Contact him at: [email protected]Twitter: @AndrewRossME