Lagos, Nigeria — The Muzak was discreetly turned low. The restaurant table nicely appointed. The waiter dutifully attentive without being obsequious. But the steaming dish of African curry was sufficiently spicy to prompt the diner to nudge the waiter and suggest that perhaps some bread or a roll might just accompany the tongue-tingling meal.
''Of course,'' the waiter responded in his avuncular manner, but cautioned that it might have to come as toast. The few triangles of white toast and couple of pats of butter proved a costly incidental - about $7.50.
Welcome to Lagos, the world's most expensive city.
At least that is the dubious crown conferred in 1982 and again in 1983 on one of Africa's most densely populated cities.
According to Business International Corporation, a Geneva-based firm that advises transnational companies on how to determine living cost differentials paid to their employees living abroad, Lagos heads the league of 86 most expensive cities. Tokyo was runner-up. Cairo ran a strong third. Mexico City, assisted no doubt by devaluation of the peso, came in last with an index of 41 against Lagos's 144 and New York's 100.
Lagos prices, which have gone through the roof these past six months, provided the spark to ignite a military coup Dec. 31. The inflated prices are astronomic enough to suggest that Lagos may again have no contenders for its 1984 triple crown as world's costliest city.
John Bishop, who is here on a couple of years' assignment from Britain as a health engineer, found Christmas cheer came exceedingly dear last year. His 16 -lb. turkey cost him (STR)71 (just a feather under $100). He can rattle off other consumer prices at a rate that suggests they left an indelible imprint on his mind: $5.60 for a tin of tea, $7 for a packet of cornflakes, $8.40 for a pound of bacon. A 2- to 3-lb. chicken goes for $9.80, a cabbage is $5.60, butter
Much of the expensive bottled foodstuffs (like ketchup and pickles) that comes into the stores is illegal and smuggled in across African borders. But it is sold openly for everyone to see. Nobody bats an eyelid.
Says a Kenyan who works in Lagos for an international organization, referring to the pre-coup days:
''If you go to a party in Nigeria, and this includes the houses of some of the state ministers, you have champagne. Champagne was banned 10 years ago.''
Taxis also run up hefty fares. A trip from the center of the city to Ijeka, an industrial area of Lagos, will cost you there and back over $40. Several taxis a day, depending on the distances and the traffic patterns, easily match the cost of a night's accommodation in the United States.
According to a local news report, it costs a multinational company in Nigeria between 100,000 and 150,000 naira (between $140,000 and $210,000) a year to maintain an expatriate in Lagos.
One expensive hassle is frequent power outages, sometimes two or three times a day, that knock out air conditioners, fans, electric lights, and elevators.
''Life without a standby generator is very uncomfortable'' testifies a newcomer to Lagos.
But the cost of these standby generators can run anywhere from $70,000 to $ 140,000, depending on whether they are intended to supply a residential home or an apartment complex.
Trying to find an air-conditioned house or apartment is another financial challenge.
Alf Burkett, just back from a breather in Britain, says a house in the Ikoyi area of Lagos costs (STR)50,000 ($70,000) a year for straight rent.
''On top of that,'' he adds, ''you have to get your food, steward, your guard , and your car. Most of them require you to pay three years' rent in advance, so you have to put up (STR)150,000 ($210,000) up front; 35,000 naira ($49,000) will only get you a two-bedroom apartment in Victoria Island in Lagos. I know. I've just done the exercise. If you move out to Isolo, you can get it for 5,000 naira. But you can't live out there. You're almost in the bush.''
Although cost-of-living allowances are renewed every year for most expatriates, prices jumped up so dramatically last year that the allowances could not keep pace with inflation. Nigerians, who have no such luxuries, faced prices that quadrupled and in some extreme cases rose 800 percent, on fixed salaries.
''No wonder the military, who threw out the civilian government who are to blame for this state of affairs, are greeted as heroes,'' says a Nigerian.