Where to eat if you’re visiting Baylor/Waco (and what to order)
As Baylor’s beloved hometown of Waco continues to grow, it becomes increasingly difficult to answer that ever-impossible riddle that has plagued everyone: “Where do you want to eat?”
Six years ago, we attempted to solve the puzzle, and we tried again three years later. But the eatery landscape in Waco has continued to evolve, as new restaurants arrived and old restaurants underwent transformations or, sadly, said goodbye. Thus, we present a new list for 2022 — here’s where to eat if you’re visiting Baylor/Waco (and what to order):
Common Grounds — The coffee shop that started it all, Common Grounds has now served multiple generations of Baylor Bears, slinging cups of concentrated energy so that students (and more than a few professors) can concentrate on their daily tasks. The homey décor and quirkily named concoctions are just a few of the many reasons this is a can’t miss part of the Baylor experience. Try the seasonal drinks, which always pair perfectly with the weather.
Pinewood Roasters — Does any Waco locale other than McLane Stadium shine as bright in autumn months? We can’t imagine a better place to grab a latte and bring a good read (whether for academic or entertainment pursuits) and enjoy the fall foliage and the comfortable hustle and bustle of one of the nation’s best coffee shops. We’re partial to a dirty chai, but there aren’t any bad moves to be made at what has now become a staple to the Waco community and Baylor students, alike.
Magnolia Table — In truth, this reimagining of the historical landmark that was the Elite Café on the Circle needs no further endorsement. With a line that forms daily and reservations that fill up days in advance, the offerings at Magnolia Table would be sought after even if they did not bear the Magnolia name. Their chicken salad, which is available for take away, is the definitive chicken salad in the state, but by altering the standard “bacon and eggs” to incorporate deviled eggs and thick jalapeño bacon, they manage to redefine breakfast.
Lighthouse Coffee — Curiously unassuming, a small coffee shop sits on Washington Avenue in downtown Waco. Humbly going about its business, it might never occur to passers-by that the coffee shop that offers extremely high-end coffee has a secret identity as a premier dining destination. Lighthouse, which offers Olympia Coffee and decadent pastries for breakfast, hosts monthly dining experiences that allow Waco chefs to show off their most envelope-pushing skills. So, whether you want a really solid cup of java or you want to test your culinary boundaries, you should allow yourself to be lead to Lighthouse.
Café Cappuccino — Visit the Waco Downtown Farmer’s Market on any given Saturday and you’ll see a line of people steadily building across the street. They’re all waiting for plate-sized pancakes, innovative omelets or some of the only crepes to be found in Waco. Catering to sweet and savory palates alike, “Café Cap,” is the most popular breakfast spot in Waco and its notoriety is well deserved, but don’t ignore their light salads and other lunch specials.
Harold Waite Pancake and Steak House — In the rush of restaurant development and general construction and change that has become the norm in Waco, it is good to know that some things stand the test of time. Harold Waite’s, a breakfast icon since the 1990s, feels far more classic. This is a diner, built like the old diners were, with wood paneling on the walls and warmth in every aspect of the establishment. From the customer service to the soul-warming food, everything on offer (from 5:30 a.m. to just after noon, only) communicates a time long past. Everything in Harold Waite’s is classic, and that may be what makes this little diner a Waco classic.
Vitek’s — Death, taxes, and the Gut Pak; these things are certain. The neighborhood, the clientele, and the world have all changed in the 105 years that Vitek’s has been in operation. And while the Gut Pak’s distant relative, the frito pie, wasn’t invented until the 1940s, it would not achieve its ultimate form until Vitek’s elevated the simple combination of corn chips, chili, cheese and onions by getting rid of the chili in favor of slow roasted brisket with beans, and adding jalapeños (with sausage, if you dare). The iconic dish comes in both regular and mini sizes, and is as good as you remember.
Ninfa’s — How we left this Waco food landmark off our list (twice!) was the cause of much criticism. Truth be told, we take it for granted that this stalwart destination of impressive fajitas and unmatched chips and salsa (red or green, it doesn’t really matter) has been a staple in Waco for so long. After any time away — whether it’s four years or four months — the magnetic pull of this Tex-Mex icon is as undeniable as their fajita quesadillas or crawfish enchiladas, which have no equal.
George’s — What does it take to become a Waco legend? Let’s see: Sustained business dating back to 1930? Check. A mainstay presence at Baylor football games? Check. A popular country song written about you? Check. George’s checks off plenty of other boxes, too. And, whether you’re in the mood for Southern comfort food or odd Central Texas inventions (we’ll take an order of bacon, chicken, cheese and jalapeño crazy wings, thanks), they have a seat waiting for you.
La Fiesta — In Texas, the common way to push a culinary envelope is to try to fry. The State Fair of Texas, as well as nearly every rodeo in the state, lives on frying random foods to see how they’ll taste. La Fiesta has found the secret everyone else is looking for in their Avocado Fries. Sure, La Fiesta is a cornerstone of Waco cuisine, serving up great Tex-Mex for years. But it is these delicate Avocado Fries, dipped in either ranch or salsa, that set the Franklin Avenue mainstay apart. Consider their open patio and live music offerings, and it’s easy to see how they’ve been around so long.
Poppa Rollo’s — Yes, the pizza at Poppa Rollo’s is iconic for Waco, but it’s the throwback environment that reels us in, again and again. The building is replete with video games, a carnival atmosphere, vaudevillian cartoons on a large projection screen, and the most alluring part of the ambience — secret passageways between areas of the restaurant. Add the most overloaded pizzas you could ever hope for to this entertaining and authentic environment, and you can see why so many grads still head to Poppa Rollo’s upon their return to Waco.
Whizzbang’s — Waco and Texas cities, in general, do not suffer for lack of hamburger places. What is harder to find is a place that will play with the foundational elements of a burger so successfully as the restaurant long known as “Captain Billy Whizzbang’s.” Using a half-burger, half-bacon grind to create their Whizz-Pig, theirs is a burger that is so much more than standard fare. If a diner wants to multiply the experience, they can opt for bacon atop the Whizz-Pig, making it a subtly double-bacon burger. Whatever the toppings, this is a rare offering in what is often a predictable burger landscape, and we are happy they call Waco home.
Schmaltz’s Sandwich Shoppe — For the closest thing to a muffaletta outside of New Orleans, look no further than Schmaltz’s. Pillowy bread that is bigger than it has any right to be is filled with deli meats and standard veggie toppings, but it’s the attention to each element that makes Schmaltz’s so easy to revisit. The bread is a meal unto itself, toasted on the outside for just the right crisp, while the inside is fluffy and light, making it the perfect vehicle for whatever sandwich fillings you choose.
D’s Mediterranean Grill — It still feels odd to recommend that Waco visitors head to a place that serves such great Mediterranean food — gyros, falafel and spanakopita — and tell them to order the chicken tenders, but that’s exactly what we suggest. The Mediterranean food notwithstanding, these chicken tenders, whether regular or spicy (we favor the spicy ones), are served piping hot, with a crispy batter that stays through dipping in gravy or sauce. Further, you can get fried green beans as your side dish, making the entire meal a healthier endeavor.
Health Camp — The oldest and most venerated of Waco’s iconic and historic eateries, Health Camp has been a fixture on Waco’s iconic traffic circle since 1948. Some of their items are time machines back to a number of different iterations of Waco dining culture. The malteds can ferry you back to the 1950s, the burgers can send diners all the way back to the roadside diners of the 1960s, and the setting itself is pure nostalgia. Here’s to another 70+ years of Health (Camp).
Kitok — We are overjoyed that Kitok survived all of the turmoil of the last three years. But even after all that time, we can’t say it any better than we did the last time we went looking for the best dining in Waco. “If we’re talking about iconic dishes in Waco, this is the monument. Thinly sliced potatoes (and, we often suspect, some thinly sliced onions and carrots) are dipped in tempura batter and then deep fried to pair with your burger.” Go there. Go there, now.
Baris — If you drive by Baris on a weekend evening, you might wonder if there’s a convention at the small Valley Mills Drive restaurant. Cars are parked on every conceivable piece of pavement around the Italian eatery, and they’re all there to pursue the affordable, savory dishes that Baris has provided to Waco for decades. The pink sauce is so popular, it should be on social media. Combining the creamy cheesiness of alfredo with the tangy savory flavors of a marinara, it deserves all of the attention it gets.
Buzzard Billy’s — At the confluence of the usual concerns of dining out — location, parking, convenience, distance from other activities, scenic views, and good food that has a menu of both standards and adventurous fare — is a solution that Waco has known for almost a quarter of a century. Whether at the downtown location that you remember from the late 1990s/early 2000s, or next to the river as it has been since 2008, Buzzard Billy’s has been offering cajun dishes and Gulf Coast seafood dishes, alongside a vibrant and laid-back environment. Just a short walk from McLane Stadium and replete with patio seating that offers views of the Brazos (particularly stunning at sunset), Buzzard Billy’s represents an incredible combination of everything one could ask of a dinner on the town in Waco.
Katie’s Frozen Custard — Waco has plenty of ice cream or frozen dessert offerings to choose from. A significant number of them are national chains, and worth a stop. But none of them compare to the distinctly Waco experience of parking off of Valley Mills Drive, stopping in to Katie’s Custard, and watching the cars go by. It’s a DIY enterprise, meaning that your Katie’s experience is only bound by your own imagination. Gummi Bears and Peanut M&M’s? Done. Pretzels and mint chocolate chips? They’ll do it. They blend and whip all the ingredients together for a rich, velvety smooth dessert that makes Katie’s a very busy place on weekend evenings.
Guess Family Barbecue — When we last spoke of Guess Family Barbecue, they were a best-kept secret. Now on the definitive top 50 BBQ list in Texas (which means the list of the best BBQ in the world), the secret is out. Still, there are some things only locals know. For example, in addition to having some of the state’s best brisket and ribs, Guess’ Sunday brunch is largely unparalleled. Get the brisket hash or the pulled pork pancakes and learn what Waco already treasures.
Milo All Day — From food-truck darling to brick-and-mortar culinary destination and now to pioneer in reviving an entire city area, Milo has continued its meteoric rise to the top of the Waco scene. Combining Texas cuisine with influences from Nashville to New Orleans, Milo brings haute couture and high-style aesthetics together, offering unique fusion dishes like Nashville Hot Chicken Tacos and the must-have that shows off the restaurant’s enthusiasm for Baylor, the Sic ‘Em on a Chicken, a biscuit sandwich that plays recklessly and ever so deliciously with conventions.
Revival Eastside Eatery — Whether you’re feeling carnivorous and want a burger or if you’re a vegetarian and still want a burger, Revival has precisely what you need. And while the Technicolor Dreamcoat — a true dream of a vegetarian sandwich — is one of the best sandwiches in the region, it shouldn’t distract from the rest of the menu, which includes the Golden Calf, which adds caramelized balsamic onions and goat cheese to turn an American standard into haute cuisine.
Slow Rise on the Brazos — When last we spoke of this slow-fermented dough pizza, we lamented the distance from the center of town that it took to enjoy a classic Margherita pizza. Now, we can not only celebrate how close this Waco-born temple to all things pizza is, but we can enjoy a waterfront view of the Brazos from their new location just west of the Suspension Bridge. Deck pizza might be the best pizza.
Clay Pot — When it’s cold outside and you just need to warm up (or, when you’re just hungry for Asian cuisine), Clay Pot has the cure for what ails you. Never mind the exhaustive menu of Asian food staples like sesame chicken and fried rice. It is the specialties like vermicelli (complete with all the fixings) and pho that will tackle any cold weather snap valiantly, that make Clay Pot a staple for Baylor Bears. Add a Vietnamese Iced Coffee, which combines divine condensed milk sweetness with a very strong coffee brew, and you’re ready to power through any day.
Olive Branch — No, we didn’t forget the Waco touchstone for hearty, scratch-made breakfasts and light lunches. How could we ever forget that croissant, those cookies or the cake? Olive Branch has become such a standard in Waco that it can be taken for granted. What can never be taken for granted, however, is the Olive Branch’s elegant aesthetic and remarkable customer service that have been a part of downtown Waco for over 16 years. And while breakfast with an omelette or a lunch burger are absolutely the right move, their Sunday brunch menu really shines, with dishes like Eggs Sardou (spinach, artichoke and Hollandaise) and the Cinnamon Biscuit Bites.
Bangkok Royal — Many an ailment in Waco and on Baylor’s campus has been helped or fully healed by the ginger soup or Tom Kha Kai, with lemongrass and coconut milk. Beyond Bangkok Royal’s healing powers, they offer the absolute standard in Pad Thai in Waco. Offered in heat levels that accommodate the cautious and the daring alike, the noodle, chicken and peanut sauce combination is a signature move of this landmark Baylor-area restaurant.
Moroso Wood Fired Pizzeria — You’ve seen the tv show or movie, where a raucous group of friends is all laughing at a family table, sharing dishes and stories with glee as a one-hour dinner turns into a three-hour “big night.” Moroso embodies what those scenes are trying to emulate. Italian dishes served in generous portions are just the starting point. The friendly staff and heady ambience complete the scene that is only lacking you and your party. We recommend getting a good group together and ordering the entire small plates menu, complete with arancini, decadent meatballs and a silky buratta. From there, the night is yours to make a story you’ll relive.
Shorty’s Pizza Shack — It’s almost hard to believe that there was a time when a Baylor student couldn’t get a Pizza Pillow in Waco. It’s even harder to believe that one Pizza Pillow would suffice. The grown-up version of the ubiquitous microwave snacks that most of us all relied on and clamored for, these baked delicacies share more in common with calzones than kolaches, but they have no peer in Central Texas, and disappear just as quickly for alumni as they did when they were students at BU.
Oh My Juice — Not all the Waco food scene is being taken over by traditional restaurants. Some of the city’s newer offerings are far less involved than a meal, yet significantly healthier for you. Take, for example, Oh My Juice. Whether in namesake juice form or one of their many healthy bowls, OMJ combines fresh fruit, grains and nutrients to provide a balm to your thirst, a healthy option for your hunger, or a little pick-me-up for your soul. It is the ultimate in “feel good” food.
Nightlight Donuts — What started in New York City as a fad mashup of pastries has come home to Waco to stay, taking up permanent residence at the Farmer’s Market and in a brick-and-mortar space near Woodway. Nightlight is where the croissant and donut combo known as the cronut can be ordered at all hours of the day. Flaky as a croissant and sweet and crispy as a donut, these heavenly concoctions kick a day off perfectly or serve as the ideal nightcap to a great day in Waco.
Pivovar — Among the new additions to the restaurant landscape, a few places make one feel like they might not be in Waco anymore. Stepping into Pivovar, you might not even feel like you’re on the same continent as Waco. Decked out in all teak apportions and with the genuine feel of a Czech luxury restaurant, this newcomer to the scene offers a fusion you might never know you needed — “Czexan,” as they call it. Try the Czexan Schnitzel or the Czech Fried Cheese (served with tartar sauce — just trust the process) to see just how melodic this mash-up can be.
Harvest on 25th — There have been plenty of people and places one would consider survivors of the past few years. Still, Harvest has quite the claim as the ultimate survivor. Not only did they pivot to a to-go model from a well-established cozy ambience ethos, but they also endured a fire in their main kitchen during a global pandemic. And, yet, here they stand, providing perhaps the best, wholesome dishes that feels more farm-to-farm than farm-to-table. If you’re there for breakfast, choosing between the hash and the sourdough pancakes, we leave that crucial call up to you. You cannot fail.
Cha Community — In compiling this list, we were initially hesitant to oversell a few restaurants that were recently featured in Baylor Magazine. It seemed excessive to mention these gems over and again. But, with the ever-changing landscape of Waco dining, it’s probably not the worst idea. Take, for example, Cha Community, where one can get the best boba in the Central Texas area, along with some authentic Taiwanese and Chinese food. The dumplings are the diamond of the menu and one of the dishes to seek out in the Waco area — but don’t ignore the Taiwanese Cold Noodles, which are somehow light enough to make you feel like a healthier person for ordering them, but filling enough that you don’t need to order more. You can also order arguably the prettiest beverage Waco has to offer in the Galaxy Lemonade.
DiCampli’s — From a happenstance meeting on the Italian coast, you could call DiCampli’s Italian Ristorante the child of destiny. Chef and founder Massimo DiCampli met his future wife, who happened to be from the Waco area. The couple moved to the Central Texas area and brought the flavors of Italy with them. Porcini and truffle pizza, cioppino and veal tenderloin saltimbocca are just a few of the benefits that the Waco area can reap from the DiCamplis’ magical union. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that DiCampli’s, with its robust menu and Joanna Gaines-designed interior, makes for the finest dining.
Hecho en Waco — When Tex-Mex begins to sound boring (if that ever should happen), or one craves a spin on the standard fare of the cuisine, it stands to reason one might go for Mex-Mex, instead. If that’s the case, Hecho en Waco has the fresh flavors and the subtle touches to differentiate their dishes and elicit memories of vacations in Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Get the Steak Poblano if you want a dish you’ll travel back to Waco again and again for.
Koko Ramen — Until recent days, if you were to seek ramen in Waco, your options were relegated to the instant ramen packages that came a dollar a dozen in the supermarket. Now, however, Koko Ramen serves up a rich, homemade broth as a vehicle for the most succulent additions. Slow-smoked brisket, tender pork belly and genuine ajitama eggs pair with noodles that are far more complex than the dried ones in plastic packs. Be careful, though; if you ask them to bring the heat, they will abide.
Hawk’s Hot Chicken — A cursory look at the Waco restaurant landscape makes one thing abundantly clear: Waco really likes chicken tenders. Most of the offerings are variations on a theme, but at Hawk’s, the standard format — fried tender, a side dish that may or may not also be fried, and then an accompanying carbohydrate — gets amplified. Hawk’s takes their queue from Nashville, where chicken tenders incorporate some level of spice. We can’t advocate for Reaper Madness, which is as hot as its name is intimidating.
Yaki — Perhaps no restaurant has ingratiated itself into the Baylor-Waco food scene as much as the DIY rice and Asian proteins and veggies that is Yaki. Short for teriyaki, the uncomplicated menu began with offerings at coffee shops like One Day and Pinewood (where they still maintain a presence) before taking over an abandoned Sonic on Valley Mills. The Yaki empire is growing, built on the back of a fierce dedication to great service, phenomenal combinations, and the “Choose Your Own Adventure” nature of the restaurant.
Village Pizza-ria — The notion that one dish does not a great restaurant make is a lie. The Hot Honey Pizza from Village Pizza-ria in Union Hall is good enough to make almost any restaurant a success. Sure, they have other great offerings, but the introduction of spicy honey atop a parmesan, ricotta and pepperoni pizza takes pizza in a delightful and playful direction. Get your favorite slice, but maybe get a little adventurous and order the Hot Honey. It might become your new favorite.
Helberg Barbecue — Waco claimed not just one Texas Monthly Top-50 BBQ place, but two. Helberg, which is just within driving distance in Valley Mills (the city west of Waco), is worth the drive from anywhere in Texas — and it is certainly worth the drive from Waco. Helberg serves up smoked brisket, ribs, pork and a pesto-stuffed turkey that is a highlight. But locals know that the showstopper is the chicken, which has been buttermilk soaked, then smoked on their pits and flash fried when ordered to warm it up and get the outside crispy.
Taqueria El Crucero — Many Baylor students will roam toward LaSalle in search of authentic street tacos, gorditas and burritos. But the real taco troopers know that a treasure trove of deliciousness is to be found where LaSalle ends. On Old Robinson Road, just off the Circle, there is a paradise of Tex-Mex cuisine known as El Crucero. Every burrito is oversized, and every sauce is overflowing with flavor. The Nachos Locos are exactly as billed, combining so many different elements into one dish, you’ll wonder why you haven’t been there before or how fast you can go back.
Curry Up and Wok This Way — The name says it all. If you want a great curry or anything that is prepared in a wok, then this Union Hall vendor is for you. They are introducing Waco diners to the wonders of flavored sticky rice, while serving almost every kind of curry imaginable, alongside traditional Asian fare. The menu changes with the season, opting for vegetables and flavors when the ingredients are at their freshest, and their dedication to that freshness ethic keeps the dishes tasting their best. Get the Green Curry and thank us later.
Pop’s Lemonade — Waco’s dining scene changes so rapidly. It is always on the move, and to keep up with it, one needs to be nimble as can be, and ready to move to wherever the people are at a moment’s notice. Pop’s Lemonade (alongside its sister store, Mac House) understands this ever-shifting landscape, and thus is always mobile. Baylor students have been charmed on campus when the Pop’s truck pulls into Fountain Mall with a refreshing lemonade that either spirits the customer back to their youth or takes their flavor palate in new directions. Get wild and add açaí and strawberry to your lemonade, or have them create a cherry-lime lemonade masterpiece that will make you forget about all your woes, whether studying for an exam or getting ready for another work meeting.
Taqueria Zacatecas — Say “Taco Z” to almost any Baylor student and they’ll likely say, “Let’s go.” Taqueria Zacatecas offers street tacos and tortas that represent the vast array of Mexican street food. And while those dishes are worthwhile, with their variety of proteins and toppings, we recommend getting on board with the birria craze that has taken Mexican restaurants by storm. Melted cheese and fillings are in a taco that is then soaked and crisped up to be dipped in a rich jus that increases both the flavor and the texture of this deliciously messy dish.
Oak and Ivy — As any dining scene grows, the restaurants that emerge challenge traditions and push the envelope for the established culinary culture. Newcomer Oak and Ivy is a pioneering restaurant that is challenging the status quo in Waco. Their menu reads like it belongs at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, rather than a strip center off of Highway 84 in Woodway. Dry-aged Duck Breast with Mole and Huitlacoche, Blistered Shishito Peppers and Shirred Eggs (which are baked with cream) are just a few of the highlights. Fine dining has always called Waco home, in some form or fashion, but in Oak and Ivy, it looks like it may have found new life.
Cajun Craft — Fusion between cuisines has many homes in culinary destinations like Houston, San Francisco and New York, where a vast spectrum of cultures and cuisines collide. Respectfully, we think fusion is plenty alive and well at the corner of Clay and 11th in Waco, Texas. Cajun Craft has the jambalaya, etouffee and Cajun staples that are worthy of their name, but also brings the best of Texas and Nashville to the table, with the occasional Asian flourish. Any po-boy is a great move, but we favor the Korean Fried Wings for their spice and their subtle sweetness.
Dave’s Hot Chicken — We make it a point to steer clear of chain restaurants in our overview of Waco restaurants. After all, we want to support Waco as much as it supports Baylor. But, when a regional chain sets a location in the Waco area and it matches the quality expected when they say they sell Nashville Hot Chicken, we might bend the rules a little. At Dave’s, they have a healthy disrespect for convention and offer a rollercoaster for the palate. True to the classic Hot Chicken that Nashville is known for, Dave’s offers every level of heat to the diner, and dares you to choose your own adventure. Choose wisely, however. Some levels should require the guest to sign a waiver before consuming.
Helados La Azteca — What more can be said about an upstart ice cream and paleta (Mexican ice pop) business that gets so popular that it actually expands during global economic turmoil? Well, for starters, can we introduce you to the wonders of chamoy? Combine sweet syrup with salt and spice and then drizzle the result on everything from fries and chips to every possible kind of fruit and you’ll understand. Its ultimate expression, the mangonada (think the best and fresh fruit smoothie you’ve ever had), is where Helados La Azteca shines.
Pignetti’s — One of Waco’s newest arrivals on the dining scene comes with quite the pedigree. After serving the Temple community for years, the Italian wonderland took over the Phoenix building in downtown and is serving up traditional Italian pizzas, pastas and grilled meats in an elegant environment that is always easy to get to. The worn wood floors and rustic chandeliers accentuate classic preparations of Lobster Ravioli, Lump Crab Avocado Bruschetta and Margherita Pizza. This is the ideal date night for fall in downtown Waco.
Bombones — The newest player on the Waco dining stage is both a throwback and a throw-way-way-back. Bombones has renovated one of Waco’s oldest industrial spaces, across from the old Coca-Cola bottling building, to make a bright, roomy and delightful space, bringing life to an area that is ripe with potential. It harkens back to when Waco was a more metropolitan area and the art deco design of nearby buildings hinted at the great future of the city to come. But, beyond restoration and renovation, Bombones throws it further back by taking Latin cuisine to its foundational roots. Diners won’t find the standard Tex-Mex here, but rather the flavors and textures that were the springboard for so many Hispanic-influenced cuisine. Tortas (round breads stuffed with savory meats and toppings) and Huaraches (masa-based flatbreads topped with your choice of proteins) are just the start, as the menu combines scratch-made and fresh ingredients to produce something far richer than “fresh-Mex” or “Cali-Mex” cuisine.
Sic ’em, Waco eateries!
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