Wednesday, August 16, 2017  

Arnest Seafood: A Lifetime in the Making


by Karin Andews 

Arnest Seafood is a family owned and operated business that is the lifetime dream of Lee Arnest and his wife Karen Hundley Arnest. Little did they know when they first saw one another at the age of 12 and 15 that the die was cast.  

 The Early Years

 Lee Arnest was born and raised at Nomini Hall, in Westmoreland County; a direct descendent of Robert King Carter and the ninth generation removed from Robert “Councillor” Carter, who raised seventeen children at Nomini Hall, with his wife Frances Ann Tasker Carter. He is buried there in the Carter cemetery. Robert King Carter and his grandson, Councillor Carter, were indeed brilliant men – worthy of the many articles and books that have been written about their lives and times as well as their differing legacies. One man built his fortune during one of the most turbulent times in American History and seemed to continually rebound from one tragedy after another to finally leave an enduring legacy that is known the world over. His final legacy would be the building of Christ Church in Lancaster County. 

The latter, Robert Councillor Carter, was educated in England, as was the custom of the day. It is said that he was accomplished in the arts, music, science and literature. He managed an unbelievable network of eighteen plantations, with twelve of them being named after the signs of the Zodiac.  

As a man of conscience, he took a direction in his final days that was most uncommon and rather perplexing to his peers. In it he possessed an understanding and wisdom that few possessed or were brave enough to act on. Lee Arnest in his 1968 Carryall The ingenuity and industrious nature of both Robert King Carter and Robert Councillor is a trait that has undoubtedly been passed down through the years to successive generations— these too have left their mark on the Northern Neck and beyond. Karen Hundley Arnest was raised in Chatham Village – a tight knit community of watermen and their families, who made up one big extended family. According to Lee, they were so tight knit that if one of them was offended they were all offended. Lee said he was one of the “new-bloods” and was very careful to remember that.  

 Karen was raised with a deep respect and love for the water. Her family depended on one another and the bounty that came with a good day’s catch. She treasures and recalls wonderful memories of haul-sanes that took place at night as she and her sisters lay on board of the haulsane boat looking up at a myriad of stars. She said that to her there was no better feeling in the entire world than the gentle rocking of the boat under a full moon as its light danced across the water. The feel of the water, smell of the air, the sky above and the sounds of the families at work make up some of the happiest and most cherished memories of her life.


 Although Lee and Karen came from very different backgrounds, their lives would be changed forever by a glance when Karen was merely 12 and Lee 15. It was a summer night at Cabin Point when Lee and Karen saw each other for the first time. That magical moment changed everything going forward for this young boy and girl. From that moment on, Lee began doing everything he could to see Karen and spend time with her, including working for her father, George Hundley, who Lee had asked for a job. As time went on, George taught Lee everything he knew about building seawalls and a lot about the waterman’s life.

 Knowing the joy of young love himself, George was very protective of his first born daughter and made sure that there was always a chaperone to ensure that they were never fully alone. When Lee finally asked if he could take Karen out on a date, it was only with the stipulation that Grandma came along. It was an innocent and simple time, where young love reigned supreme and Grandma was ever-present.  

Over the years, Lee and Karen would grow together, apart and together again. They are a living example that love believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things. They are blessed with a loving family which includes two beautiful daughters, Stephanie Frances Dooley and Jessica LeAnne Arnest Smith. Two son-in-laws, Brian Dooley and Alex Smith, along with four grandchildren, Jack, Anne Blair, Caitlin and Carter Lee complete their family.

 The Entrepreneur

 By the time Lee was 16, he felt the call of entrepreneurship. He had bought a 1962 Nova convertible as a dream car. However, realizing he had to go to work, he removed the engine from his beloved Nova and installed it into a 1968 Carryall (once a Westmoreland County ambulance which had a bad motor). At this point, he started hauling seafood to Baltimore and went door to door selling his seafood. His first catering job started with Cathy and Trow Littleton. As a young His first catering job started with Cathy and Trow Littleton. As a young waterman, he met them and started going to their cottage in Coles Point and cooking for them and their numerous guests. The Littletons came up with the idea of Karen and Lee starting a catering business.

They got them their first job in catering for their friend Larry LeHugh of Front Royal. This job gave Lee his first big break. The Arnests still to this day cater for Trow Middleton of Middleburg. It was in Middleburg that Lee had the privilege of meeting Mrs. Mars of Mars Candy. Mrs. Mars was so impressed with the quality of his seafood that she hired him to cater an event for her. He still enjoys his association with her, as he continues to cater an event for her each September. Just recently, Lee and Karen were invited to cater an event at the Governors Mansion. They also recently catered for the General Assembly of Virginia showcasing Virginia’s seafood industry. He is also catering an event at UVA for a repeat customer.

They look for an opportunity to not only serve the freshest seafood and home cooking available, but to also make friends along the way. Lee has created many of his own signature dishes that are ever popular like his famous “Oysters Nomini”. Lee and Karen have been in the restaurant business for the last 7 years starting with a carry-out seafood business in Central Garage and progressed to hundred seat restaurant in King William.

Dreams come true

In the past years, Lee and Karen searched for the ideal location to establish a fullfledged family restaurant, crab deck and raw bar. They wanted a place closer to home. Opportunity came knocking. Their dream came true when Mimi McComb got in touch with the Arnests to let them know their intent to sell the restaurant, which had become a popular favorite in Tappahannock. For the Arnests, it was a wonderful opportunity in the heart of Tappahannock, closer to their core clientele.

 For Bruce and Mimi McComb, it was a blessing to be able to pass on the work they had started here. And so, they met and discussed the purchase and transition, which could not have gone more smoothly thanks to The McCombs, Maria, the cook, and all the other staff at the old Java Jack’s. It is now Arnest Seafood and is right in the heart of Tappahannock. Lee and Karen have built a robust catering business, as well as being purveyors of the freshest seafood around – served in a warm friendly atmosphere. They hope to also add a crab deck this coming season and a raw bar. As time goes on and the menu evolves, Karen and Lee will be hiring more qualified individuals as needed. For Karen, who has always been in banking, the opportunity to run a family restaurant with Lee as a true business partner has been very rewarding.

 Familiar Surroundings

 Java Jacks has always been a charming and whimsical place to meet friends for coffee, breakfast, lunch or brunch. It has a special homespun feel to it, like the old restaurants of my own childhood in southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore and Tidewater, Virginia. The old Java Jack’s favorites are still served alongside new fresh seafood offerings. Being a bit of a crab purist, I have to report that their crab cake sandwich was absolutely fantastic. The flavor was sublime and there was not even the tiniest bit of shell or filler.


The décor at Arnest Seafood is changing, as the Arnests are incorporating real items off of Karen’s grandfather’s boat – the Mary Alice. New décor also includes real hand woven nets from ages past, cork floaters, and a host of waterman’s tools used by Karen’s father and grandfather on their boats. A collection of decoys and waterfowl related items are also being incorporated as well. Karen and Lee are transforming the restaurant into a place to not only expect to be served a great meal, but An interior eat-in area of Arnest Seafood to relax, have a drink among family and friends in a warm, fun and inviting place. You will also have the opportunity to view several scale models of the actual boats that have been used in the crab, fishing and oyster business by family members. One boat is the Lone Star which was Lee’s first big boat and was a 38’ round stern dead rise. It was built in Jackson’s Creek by the Wright Brothers. The Lone Star was named by Sam Chatham. When Lee asked Sam how the boat got its name he stated that the night he came up the Chesapeake Bay from Jackson’s Creek to Tidwells he said “there was nothin’ in the bay but myself, the boat and one lone star”.

 Also to be viewed is a beautiful recent family portrait of Lee, Karen, their daughters, grand-children and sons-in-law aboard the Karen Ann. A large collection of oyster cans from Maryland and Virginia are also showcased and brighten up the spaces with their bold graphic colors. They are works of art in their own right.

 In the words of Karen Arnest, “our goal is to make everyone happy. We want your ideas of what you would like to see here. This is a cozy quaint little place that we just love. We hope you will love it to