Jan. 20 2010 12:00 AM

O’Neil’s packs fillings galore in 4-pound Big One


When The Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food” came to metro Detroit last year, host Adam Richman and his team of 40 competitive eaters attempted to set a world record by finishing a 190-lb. cheeseburger. That was nearly 5 pounds. of bacon, beef and bun for each member of the eating team — and they failed (guess that round was Food: 1, Man: 0). If Richman ever comes back to the Mitten State for another contest, how ever, East Lansing has a menu item custom-made for the gluttons-delight TV show — The Big One, a gut-busting 4-lb. omelet at O’Neil’s.

“I got the idea for The Big One right after we opened a couple years ago,” says O’Neil’s owner/operator John Harvey. “I was in New Mexico and I drove by The Big Texan—they have a 72-ounce steak where if you eat the whole thing you get it for free. It was a Monday, a night that’s usually slow in the restaurant business, but the parking lot was packed. I said right then, “I’ve gotta come up with one for myself!’”

O’Neil’s is a breakfast diner, so naturally the oversized item had fit the menu. After some tinkering around, The Big One ($14.95) was born. It consists of nine eggs, sausage, ham, bacon, hash browns, broccoli, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, mushrooms, jalapenos, your choice of cheese, and then the whole thing is drowned in sausage gravy. Can’t you feel your arteries clogging just reading that sentence? But that’s not even the whole meal — you also get a full side of hash browns, your choice of toast and either juice or milk, all of which must be consumed within 30 minutes.

The rules are straightforward enough. You have to eat everything that’s brought to you with no help from anyone else, even if you knock it off the plate. You are allowed no substitutions/ omissions from the omelet. You must stay seated the entire time. Most important, once the timer is started, it doesn’t stop.

“There are some secrets to finishing, which I won’t give out,” says Anna, one of the waitresses. “But I do offer hints occasionally.”

Anna’s hints today: 1.) Wait a little while after the food has arrived to let it cool down — the timer doesn’t start until you have your first bite, and if you eat it hot you’ll have to go slower; 2.) Choose an English muffin as your side of toast — it’s smaller than the other bread choices; 3.) Get apple juice as your beverage — it’s less filling and less acidic; 4.) Use a spoon; and 5.) Go as fast as you can for the crucial first 15 minutes — it takes that long for the “full” feeling to settle in.

“After 15 minutes, you hit the wall,” she says. “And once you start feeling full, it it’s nearly impossible to finish.”

Participants must sign a contract promising that they will abide by the rules, and all winners get their names written on The Big One Board in addition to getting their meal paid for. Harvey used to let people do it as much as they wanted, but recently he instituted a new rule: If you win once and try again later, you have to beat your old time or you don’t get on the board (and you have to pay half price). So far 100 people have made the attempt, with only 37 making it all the way through.

“Our top time so far is 12:43, which is going to be pretty much untouchable,” says O’Neil. “And he was just a little guy. Traditionally the small, skinny people do the best. We’ve had one guy who calls himself The Greek do it six times. He just sits quietly and eats every bite. That’s another hint: don’t come in trash talking—you must respect The Big One or it’ll get you.”

Harvey has owned the little homey diner near the MSU campus since August 2008. He wanted it to be a breakfast place so he could still spend time with his family in the afternoons and evenings. Besides the quality food, Harvey’s focus is on service, and his three weekend waitstaff — Anna, Jordan and Bryan — run the floor like a wellrun ship.

“You really can’t skimp on service,” he says. “If you don’t hold up that end of the bargain, people won’t come back. And we have a dedicated crowd of students and people in the community who we see back every week, so we know we must be doing something right.”

And the name?

“My grandfather, dad and brother all had O’Neil as their middle name,” says Harvey. “I used to wonder, ‘how come I couldn’t get that as my middle name?’ So when I was thinking of what to call the restaurant, it seemed perfect. I’m able to pay respect to my family, and now I can say I have the name, too.”

I decided not to go for the The Big One challenge, but I ordered one just to see how far I would get. (I had them leave off the mushrooms, which would have disqualified me anyway. Full disclosure: I skipped dinner the night before to prepare.) I have to admit, when I saw Harvey putting it on the plate, I did have that feeling of dread you get at the top of the first hill on a big roller coaster — “What in the hell have I gotten myself into?” I was able to finish the whole omelet in about 20 minutes by going slow and steady, but the last few bites were pretty rough and there was no way I had room for the bread or hash browns.

Consider this the exhibition round. But I’ve got your number now, Big One. Can’t let Adam Richman have all the fun.

O’Neil’s 1017 E. Grand River Ave. East Lansing (517) 203-4745 TO, B, $