Bill Harrington stood before the counter, gravely pondering the possibilities.

"I'll have a row of milk maple creams," he began, "and, let's see, a row of raspberry creams and, ummmm, a couple of apricot wedges and, oh, four truffles, annnnd . . . four cordial cherries, annnnd . . . let me have a couple of butter crunch, annnnnd. . . . "

There will be no slapdash race to the corner drugstore for Harrington today, no sheepish offering of waxy creams and mystery nuts to his beloved.

On this day of lavish gestures, Harrington will present his wife with fine chocolate, expensive chocolate, the kind of chocolate that is not just a boon to the sweet tooth, but a status symbol.

In the sophisticated, adult candy store of the 1980s, not just any chocolate can be sold. It must be imported, hand-dipped, fashioned into rich morsels with provocative names such as Apricot Melange or Belgian Chocolate Shells or Grand Marnier Truffles.

And the price? Coconut Haystacks and other less elegant varieties typically cost around $7 a pound at area specialty stores. A pound of All-Swiss Truffles, on the other hand, made with thick cream and brimming with liqueur, goes for $21.97.

Area chocolatiers say such offerings have always been expensive. What's significant now is the availability of the richer, fancier candies -- and the customer demand for them.

"It's not that these chocolates didn't exist before," said Marilu Seckinger, a spokeswoman for Garfinkel's. "It's just that now they have become popularized, mass market , middle-class. The same thing happened with wines and finer foods.

"People are more sophisticated now," she said, "and they've become accustomed to the nicer things -- the darker, fresher, more bitter chocolates. Like anything else, the candy has become a status symbol."

Fran Edlitz, who makes candy daily at her Chez Chocolat store at Rockville's White Flint shopping center, agrees.

"When I opened this store seven years ago," she said, "the average American palate was used to a Hershey bar."

Yesterday, customers lined up at her store to buy stem cherries dipped in dark chocolate ($8.50 a pound), pecan truffles ($8.25) and chocolate-covered ginger ($8.99).

"My wife has graduated from the Whitman box," said David Ratherdale, a sales executive, as he waited his turn.

Up the road at The Chocolate Box, Allen Rossi admitted that in his secret heart, "I'd just as soon have some chocolate-covered peanuts from the 5-and-10."

As a dentist, Rossi said, he could not entirely condone his purchase of a healthy hunk of chocolate fudge for his wife, Georgia. As a sweetheart, however, he could do nothing less.

"As long as we run brush our teeth immediately, it'll be all right,'' he said.

Other customers also indicated that their gifts were not exclusively selected with the recipient in mind.

Harrington, a Rockville advertising executive, decided to add a couple of orange creams to his overflowing box and take them home for a Valentine's Eve sampling.

"My wife and I," he explained, "have greatly similar tastes."