THE black gentleman wore a polka-dot jacket. His flowing, frizzled black wig was a Rick James version of an 18th-century courtier. His companion wore a black turban with a crest above his forehead. His second companion was unexceptional apart from the slight woman who sat at his side, perhaps in her 80s and speaking French, Italian, and American interchangeably.
They were entering Taillevent, the temple of French gastronomy near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Ten waiters swung into action. A fourth chair was swiftly added to a table in the entrance chamber. The entourage was halted mid-stride and seated before they could create a sensation in the intimate and paneled dining room.
There the guests were already of various persuasions (Asian, black, Causcasian, political, rich); the women wore pants, risking the extremes of color and severity; and all spoke French, presumably in the French manner.
Guests at a nearby table, from San Antonio, did not recognize Virgil Tibbs ``in that hair,'' as one put it. She had just watched his television series the evening before leaving for Paris.
Offstage, Mr. Tibbs is Howard Rollins, an actor who plays a black detective from New York who goes to Sparta, Mississippi, to team up with a Southern police chief played by actor Carroll O'Connor in ``In the Heat of the Night,'' the television version of the Sidney Poitier movie.
Rollins was practicing his secondary-school French, he said, as he introduced himself around the room as graciously as his outfit would allow.
The French, more than most peoples, perhaps, guard their traditions. To be ``Frenched,'' Americans stationed in Paris say, is to have an invisible cultural door closed in your face.
Americans have little sense of time, of history; they live in a dissolving present. In the new ``global'' world, expatriatism has been devalued; but Americans still like to lose themselves in Parisian neighborhoods, if only now to stay for a season. They visit the Mus'ee d'Orsay, the remodeled train station on the Rive Gauche.
``It is appreciation the French want,'' a non-French resident of Paris suggests. Awkwardness with the language likely means that the visitor will miss whatever makes a dinner, an outfit, a book, or a political theory exceptional.
The French approach their achievements systematically, bringing the intellectual and the aesthetic into close alignment.
Marc Meneau, master of a dining establishment near the old town of V'ezelay in Burgundy, observes how the organizing of recipes around menus may have gone out of fashion.
``Why so,'' he protests, ``since it is useful to have a coherent and global idea for a dinner ... a menu should be balanced between hot and cold, in seasonings, between the natural juices and the sauces.''
The ambiences of a restaurant - the flowers, the garden, and the pace at which it moves - are the predisposing aspects of an occasion.
Much trouble, of course, has come to the human race from too much thinking about the apple.
The French do not comprehend the American's sudden departure, a resident American friend was saying. The French stay on a career track.
His daughter received an Ivy League education in one subject and then studied another at graduate school. French acquaintances were certain that she had failed in her first pursuit despite having won high honors.
The handicappers think the French will not do well in the new Europe of 1992. Too wedded to tradition, they say. Recesssion afflicts France while monumental renovation of the Madeleine, the Louvre, persists.
Nonetheless, after 10 years the French government's Minitel computer information system, an innovation offered to all telephone users, has begun to turn a profit.
The morning after Mr. Tibbs's visit to Taillevent, Paris disgorged itself for a five-day weekend. ``La route a Bordeaux est saturee,'' read the electronic sign above the expressway.
Shrugged off this time, Mr. Tibbs departed to tape a new television series back in the American South.
He may yet impress France with his Sparta reruns.