By Karen S. Schneider
Updated January 29, 1996 12:00 PM

THE LAST TIME WE SAW JULIA Roberts shoeless, she was walking down the aisle in 1993 with country crooner Lyle Lovett. Well, with Julia it seems that the men change but the feet remain alfresco. The barefoot actress was photographed one bright January morn, on a quiet Hollywood Hills street, snuggling with stocking-footed Friends star Matthew Perry. Is this love in bloom—-or a Dr. Scholl’s commercial?

“They’ve been on a few dates,” says a spokesperson for Perry.

“A couple of dates,” comes the word from her camp.

Two, three—the point is, there is romance in the air. Just a week after their shoeless encounter, the separated Roberts, 28, and the never-married Perry, 26, huddled in conversation over an intimate dinner at West Hollywood’s Trattoria Amici, a regular hangout for Perry and the Friends gang. They arrived at 9, took a corner table and stayed late, looking very much, says one fellow diner, “like they were on a date.”

True, fellow diners seldom err on the side of caution. Since her marriage to Lovett wilted last spring, Roberts has supposedly been spotted out with just about every Tom, Dick and Daniel Day-Lewis to cross her path. The supermarket tabs even had her ga-ga for a gondolier she met while filming Woody Allen’s still-untitled next movie, a musical, in Venice. But every sighting of Roberts dancing cheek-to-cheek (Ethan Hawke) or strolling side-by-side (Richard Gere) has always been followed by an official, and believable, denial—until now.

“He’s cuuute,” Roberts playfully told a Friends crew member who asked about the romance. “So,” said Perry, “is she.”

Theirs was not, however, love at first sight. When the two were introduced last year, says a pal of hers, the only shared passion they expressed was for his hit sitcom. Soon after, Roberts accepted an offer from the Friends producers to appear—with Brooke Shields and Jean-Claude Van Damme—on a special one-hour episode to air right after the Super Bowl on Jan. 28. When she showed up in early January to tape her scenes as a grammar school classmate of Perry’s character, Chandler Bing, Roberts and the boyish bachelor seemed to click.

To NBC execs, that sound was as welcome as the click of the ratings notching ever upward. What better way to hype interest in the post-Super Bowl show—for which the network is hiking its 30-second advertising rate from $400,000 to over $600,000—than with reported sparks between two of its stars? Roberts, too, could probably use some buzz for her latest film, Mary Reilly, the oft-delayed Jekyll and Hyde tale with John Malkovich and Glenn Close, due out next month.

But those who know the happy couple insist ulterior motives have nothing to do with the match. “They had fun together,” says a Friends source. Still, let’s not make too much of this too soon. “It’s casual,” a Roberts friend said of the relationship. The actress still cares so much for Lovett that she sends him roses on a regular basis. And Perry hangs onto his bachelor life like it was the remote to his 40-inch TV; dating Roberts didn’t get in the way of a night out with the boys—Friends costars David Schwimmer and Matt LeBlanc—at the L.A. nightclub the Pearl earlier this month. A week after that, Roberts was out shopping solo at Santa Monica’s Urban Outfitters. That’s hardly a place to find a wedding gown—but it is a good spot to pick up a pair of shoes.