You don't have to drive across town for the best dumpling or get on the freeway for the top taco anymore. In most cases you can walk down the street of your own neighborhood or ride a couple of stops on the train for some really good eats. After all, one-third of all California restaurants are in L.A. County.

Much of that has to do with real estate, of course, as well as the dramatic rise in all the hidden costs of what goes into that plate of food in front of you. As rents have gone up in the prime areas, chefs and restaurateurs have settled in neighborhoods that are cheaper and off the expensive beaten path. Increasing costs for rent, labor, linens, food, workers' comp and vendors charging extra for delivery are making it a challenging business.

“It's great for what it's done for local neighborhoods,” Brad Metzger of Brad Metzger Restaurant Solutions tells L.A. Weekly. “L.A. has gotten so much more populated that these areas have been filling up.

“When Hatchet Hall opened in Culver City, people thought that was just the weirdest spot to open an important restaurant,” says Metzger, who owns a hospitality recruiting firm that provides workers for L.A.'s top restaurants.

“You have to go where the real estate prices are, like Silver Lake or Highland Park. I think they're getting more expensive now, too, but two or three years ago when those deals were being cut, it was much cheaper than going into Abbott Kinney or prime West Hollywood,” he says. That said, Highland Park real estate prices and rents already are feeling upward pressure.

As for what's ahead and pretty apparent in our neighborhoods already, it's the growing fast-casual trend.

Metzger says fast-casual is getting bigger and bigger because there's much less labor and other costs for the owners. Many restaurant guests are fine with the concept of less service and not having to pay as much, especially the younger crowd. They don't mind waiting in line, ordering at the counter, grabbing their own silverware and drinks, and sharing a communal table.

“It's all about what's on the plate, the quality of the food,” Metzger says. “The whole service mentality isn't as important to a lot of people today. People are getting out so much more now, it's less of what they really care about. It's more about the quality of the food and the price.” That might account for the abrupt closure of many larger concept and upscale restaurants recently.

The California Restaurant Association says there are 25,382 restaurants in Los Angeles County — not including fast food chains or trucks — in an area that's divided up into five major regions.

The north includes the San Fernando Valley, Crescenta Valley and the Santa Clarita Valley. The south includes the South Bay, South L.A., Palos Verdes, Long Beach and Catalina.

The east includes Pasadena and all of the San Gabriel Valley, Boyle Heights and East L.A. The Westside represents beach cities like Santa Monica and Venice as well as West Hollywood, Pico-Robertson and Sawtelle.

The central section encompasses areas such as downtown L.A., Koreatown, Atwater Village and Hollywood.

Over the next few days, we'll be rolling out our picks of what's best in your neighborhood, starting with the northern region, in an effort to spare you time on the freeways and help keep the carbon footprint down.

LA Weekly