No doubt about it. The American yen for chocolate has turned gourmet. The clear message in a spate of new ads accompanying the shift is that it costs more, but it's worth it. One ad features four molded chocolates and a silver spoon with the terse caption ''Well-bred.'' The fine print notes that not everyone will appreciate the ''rare and delicate'' taste of these Godiva chocolates but that those who do belong in a class by themselves.
Yet another ad suggests (and shows) splitting a Tobler chocolate bar in two while ''we'' decide whether to spend the weekend in Aspen, attend the symphony, or head for Saks Fifth Avenue.
''Basically people are becoming more discriminating in their choice of chocolate,'' says Joan Steuer, editor in chief of Choclatier Magazine, a hefty quarterly of chocolate recipes and company profiles that will debut on newsstands in February at $3 a copy.
''Gone are the days of popping chocolates into your mouth in front of the TV set,'' observes editor Steuer.''Now you find people savoring a truffle instead - many consider that the purest form of chocolate available.''
At Chicago's Marshall Field & Co., which produces and sells 500,000 pounds a year of its own chocolate-mint ''Frangos,'' there are myriad large counters now devoted to various choclatiers just as there have always been for cosmetics.
It is the imports that hit the pocketbook hardest. Chocolates in silver boxes by Neuhaus of Belgium sell for $22 a pound while a box from Moreau of Switzerland will set you back $28 a pound. But the obvious creme de la creme at Field's is the truffle in seven varieties at $30 a pound made in Belgium under the name of three-star chef Michel Guerard.
''People are buying primarily on quality and perception as opposed to the price,'' says Richard T. O'Connell, president of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association (CMA) of the US. He says that chocolate sales been heavily youth-oriented in the past but are shifting more to the many now in the 19-to-34 age bracket who grew up since World War II. ''They're a little more affluent and willing to pay a little more,'' he says.
Though many brands of chocolate sold in the US have European names and some began as European companies, only about 10 percent of the chocolate Americans buy is actually imported. Godiva Choclatier Inc., for instance, though originally a Belgian company and still following its recipes, is actually owned by Campbell's Soup Company and is largely made in Pennsylvania. But many of the new chocolate ''boutiques'' springing up with European names - such as one recently opened in Chicago's towering Magnificent Mile building on Michigan Avenue by Le Choclatier - are actually American through and through. Here each hand-dipped piece, often made with as many as four layers of chocolate, sells for 75 cents.
''We get a lot of neighborhood people who just want a piece or two for dessert,'' says Lisa Lane, a partner in the Chicago-based company that operates one other store in New York's Hotel Pierre and plans to open more. The firm began by buying recipes from a New York East Side tailor who made chocolates in the back of his shop. ''We had gone to Europe to buy but decided to purchase his recipes instead because they were just fabulous.''
'' 'Choclatier' means purveyor of fine chocolate, and we felt that was a perfect name for our magazine,'' comments editor Joan Steuer. ''We decided last summer to start it because we saw the chocolate industry growing so much.''
One of the most booming examples of that kind of growth is the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory Inc., one of the largest franchise enterprises in the country involving hand-dipped chocolates. In the less than three years since it was launched, the owners have set up 28 stores. They plan to start 30 more in 1984. Part of the appeal, in addition to the rich taste, Vice-President Mark Lapinsky says, is that each store makes its own fudge (23 varieties) and that passers-by can watch the mixing of the ingredients in old copper kettles and the cooling of the fudge on marble slabs even as they sniff the distinctly chocolate aroma coming out the door.
Many US manufacturers buy their base chocolate in bars from large US producers such as Nestle and Hershey (which has been making its pitch to the gourmet market with a Golden Almond bar). The base is made by roasting and shelling the cocoa beans and grinding the kernels to produce the dark liquid known as chocolate ''liquor.'' Buyers then ''conche'' the base (mix it with sugar, milk, and other ingredients) for from 12 to 72 hours.
''The recipes aren't really the important thing - it's the process,'' insists Mr. O'Connell. ''How long the beans are roasted, from what sources, how long the chocolate is conched - all these things affect the flavor. It's what you do with the chocolate that matters - like taking veal and learning to fix it with a nice bernaise sauce.''
US manufacturers produce more than 2.1 billion pounds of chocolate a year. And at times it seems as if almost everywhere you look something is coming up chocolate. There are chocolate pizzas, chocolate monopoly boards, and small chocolate cars. One 12-ounce Mercedes replica by Godiva sells for $25. There are even chocolate-scented greeting cards and chocolate perfume sprays.
''Not only do people want to eat chocolate - they want to smell like it,'' observes CMA spokeswoman Diane Kierce.
But when it comes to eating chocolate, Americans are still a conservative lot compared with the Europeans. The average American eats only about nine pounds a year or a little more than half as much as the average Swiss or Belgian. One American chocolate lover traces the beginnings of her affinity to her student days in Germany where she and others routinely ate it atop their breakfast bread - ''just like jam.''