Tableside service at Brennan’s; photo by Nicole Pensiero

Everything seemed in place during a recent breakfast at Brennan’s, one of the iconic restaurants in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

The Bananas Foster, the old world elegance and the dedicated service struck all the right notes. Having not been back to NoLa since before Hurricane Katrina  battered the city in 2005, it seemed like little had changed. There are more restaurants now than in 2005 and other attractions, including Pat O’Brien’s, Preservation Hall and the New Orleans School of Cooking, hummed with activity.

As I learned from chatting with locals, however, Brennan’s took quite a hit from the storm, despite it largely sparing the Quarter.

The restaurant closed for nearly a year, having suffered major damage from its second-story refrigerators leaking through to the first floor. Its wine collection, valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, was ruined.

Today, Brennan’s looks like as pristine as ever, as does another local landmark, the Roosevelt Hotel. The 118-year-old property, formerly known as the Fairmont, closed for four years after Katrina, reopening in 2009 following a $145 million renovation.

During my fall stay, the relaunch of the Hyatt Regency marked another chapter in NoLa’s post-Katrina rebirth. The 1,193-room hotel, which housed recovery crews, city officials and medical personnel during and after the storm, is practically new again, thanks to a $275 million upgrade.

The revamping of the 32-story property is part of $8 billion in economic development in New Orleans that also includes a new trolley system, medical district, Superdome enhancements, housing and retail.

While it’s impressive to see the French Quarter looking perhaps even cleaner than before, the real proof of the recovery is in the Lower 9th Ward. The impoverished neighborhood came to symbolize all that went wrong during and after the storm, and has since attracted much attention from Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt and other celebrities and much investment.

A new home built by the Make It Right Foundation; photo by JoAnn Greco

I checked out the Lower 9th Ward during a city tour offered by Cajun Encounters. Although Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation and other charitable groups have rebuilt scores of houses, much work remains to be done.

The 9th Ward I saw offered a stark contrast between renovated low-income housing –– including the impressive Habitat for Humanity Musicians Village –– and abandoned, still-boarded up homes, many marked with the FEMA “X” designating whether bodies of hurricane victims were found inside.

Few businesses were open, although there is talk of a supermarket being built.

In contrast to the liveliness of the Quarter, the Lower 9th still felt like a ghost town. The population is now 5,500 –– one-third of its pre-Katrina numbers.

Still, I felt encouraged by seeing so many brightly painted, “shotgun” style homes in its Holy Cross section.

Perhaps, locals say, it’s just a matter of time before the Lower 9th Ward starts catching up to the Quarter and some others parts of the city.

To borrow from the NoLa’s unofficial slogan, I hope the good times get rolling along there soon.